Peter Strickland has always been a filmmaker on his own wavelength, making uniquely crafted movies like Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy for audiences that are practically a dictionary definition of the term “niche.” It’s hard to get any more niche than his latest, In Fabric, perhaps the cultiest of the British director’s cult output thus far. Strickland’s newest film sits at the intersection of Italian giallo, kitchen sink drama and the kind of absurdism that defines much of the UK’s current comedic output — call it an Absurdist-Euro-Horror-Comedy. That combination doesn’t quite make a cohesive whole, but the pieces are absolutely fascinating.
In Fabric presents a kind of horror pastiche in which the joining factors are a haunted dress that kills its owners, and the mysterious department store from which said dress originates. The chiffon-y, evil red frock goes from owner to owner, destroying lives (and washing machines) wherever it goes. The dress also seems to be controlled by the employees of Dentley and Soper’s Department Store, who dress like Brontë characters in mourning and speak with a mesmerizingly odd vocabulary, head saleslady Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) particularly so.
Owner number one, with whom In Fabric spends the most time, is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a lonely divorcée dealing with a frustrating son (Jaygann Ayeh), his obnoxious girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), and a dull job at a bank. She purchases the dress for a date, which goes poorly, and then is haunted by the garment, which floats ominously above her as she sleeps and causes strange dreams and violent “accidents.” Sheila is also haunted by the story of the dress’ first wearer, a model (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) who died in a car wreck shortly after wearing it for the department store’s catalog shoot.
After Sheila, the dress moves on to washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill), whose friends buy the dress for him to wear as a joke at his bachelor party. Reg’s fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires) takes a shine to the dress, and starts wearing it herself. Of course, all of the dress’ owners come to tragic ends, by various means.
Every part of In Fabric is steeped in giallo aesthetics, all carefully curated to evoke a sense of being somewhat out of sync with time. The main characters, their jobs, and language are all contemporary, but their surroundings are anything but. This feeling covers everything from the richly monochromatic set design (green for Sheila’s bank, bright red for the department store, blue for Reg’s washing machine repair shop) to the psychedelically baroque score by Cavern of Anti-Matter. It’s worth noting the score, particularly — more than almost anything else, In Fabric’s music is what gives it that old-school vibe. Strickland has always had an impeccable ear for music, working with bands like Broadcast and Cat’s Eyes, as well as Cavern of Anti-Matter, which boasts members of Stereolab in its lineup.
In Fabric is more about cultivating that aesthetic than telling a great story or making a point. It’s an exploration of tone and feeling and setting that a viewer can get lost in. That said, its various tangents don’t always come together that well, and its stranger elements can sometimes feel odd just for the sake of being odd. But while it doesn’t have the best cohesion, its feel is very consistent. It’s also bolstered significantly by its performances — Jean-Baptiste’s groundedness and Mohamed’s bizarro commitment, as well as a couple of cameos by comedians Julian Barratt and Steve Oram, who couldn’t be a better fit for the material if it were tailored to their exact specifications.
All this is to say In Fabric isn’t for everyone, and it’s that way by design. This is clearly a movie made by Peter Strickland, for Peter Strickland and those who think like him, which means it may leave many viewers in a confused fog after the credits roll. For those attuned to its sensibilities, however, it’s a delightfully creepy world to get lost in for a couple of hours.