One possessed dress. Two customers. A half dozen witches and an unlimited amount of fetishistic perversity — welcome to the world of Peter Strickland. A British filmmaker with a keen grasp of the weird and what appears to be a mission to excavate the darker, danker corners of Eurosploitation cinema, he makes movies that function as both homages and fever dreams. His breakthrough, Berberian Sound Studio (2012), couches its tale of a sound engineer losing his mind in the world of ’70s giallo slasher-sleaze; its follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy (2014), is a same-sex S&M love story that replicates a vintage arthouse/grindhouse sordidness so well you’d think it was a lost Jess Franco flick. Now, with clammy hands and tongue firmly in cheek, Strickland pivots to old-school Brit horror with a bifurcated tale of a ghostly garment wreaking supernatural havoc. You read this correctly. It’s a movie in which “dressed to kill” could not be taken more literally.
Sheila (Secrets & Lies‘ Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is simply looking for something to wear to a blind date, her first since splitting with a philandering husband. Fortunately, this Miss Lonelyhearts finds a form-fitting “artery red” number with a plunging neckline that’s a knockout. Unfortunately, she’s come across the item of clothing in Dentley and Soper’s, a London boutique run by a coven with some peculiar notions about customer service. “Our perspectives on the specters of mortality must not be compromised by an askew index of commerce,” intones the shop’s head saleswoman, Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), in a thick Romanian accent. (Her penchant for baroque, overly wordy questions and in-store announcements is the film’s funniest running joke.)
She mentions that the model wearing this one-of-kind item in their catalog was killed while wearing it. Her spirit may still, in fact, reside in its soft, sumptuous fabric. “You who wear me will know me” reads the Latin phrase stitched into the dress’s seam. And late at night, with a scratching sound emanating from Sheila’s closet, you can hear this impeccably designed collection of phantom threads coming to life….
Few people could get away with making haunted couture seem chilling without being kitsch, or turn ridiculously verbose retail-speak into something both sidesplitting and unnerving. Strickland somehow knows exactly where the line between silly and eerie is, and when to skip right over it — he gives you the sort of movie in which mounting dread might naturally segue into a dream sequence featuring a newborn flipping the bird. He also seems extremely well-versed in yesteryear’s Hammer and Amicus anthology horror films, which In Fabric tips its hat to by switching narratives around the midway point. The dress soon ends up on a young repairman named Reg (Leo Bill), as part of a prank his mates have prepared for his bachelor party. His fiancé, Babs (Hayley Squires), tries it on the next day. She eventually ends up back Dentley and Soper’s, wearing the telltale faux-wraparound, and all hell breaks loose. Final score: Dress 2, People 0.
With its retro look and ability to successfully sell a deus ex sewing machina premise as a primal nightmare, Strickland’s movie works as a companion piece to his other lovingly crafted throwbacks; it also feels like an outlier compared to the unbearably intense and/or social-thriller horror that’s characterized the genre’s recent, fertile wave. You can read its consumerism-as-Satanic-cult digs as satire, but there is so much Freudian flotsam dotting its oddball detours, so much deep kink burbling to the surface, that any notion of commentary is quickly overwhelmed by the free-form freakiness. Some touches, like Gwen Christie showing up as a lingerie-clad model sleeping with Sheila’s son, feel too peripheral for their own good. Others flights of fancy, like a vignette involving a mannequin, pubic hair, and voyeurism, may require months of therapy in order to process.
There are so many disquieting images and surreal stylistic flourishes (aided by a woozy synth score courtesy of Stereolab side project Caverns of Anti-Matter) that you find yourself shuddering over random bits days later — a staticky commercial of witches beckoning you to buy, a fetish origin-story flashback, an inexplicably lyrical shot of an empty gown rustling and billowing in midair. For all of its curated channeling of past midnight-movie programming, In Fabric doesn’t feel like it’s cut from the same cloth as anything else. It’s a singular trip into a singularly warped mind.