By all rights, the correct day to release In Fabric, the new art house horror-comedy about a killer dress, would have been Black Friday. But since even anti-consumerist satires are subject to market forces, the latest from British writer-director Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio) arrives stateside a week later than it should, though it’s no less clever, funny, or delightfully surreal for that. Strickland is fully aware of the innate silliness of his premise, which may be why the giallo-inspired, kink-flavored film takes the form of a diptych—the first hour a straightforward tale of a sympathetic victim, the second a metahorror story that redirects the audience’s identification closer to the dress, or at least away from its target. If you think a movie about a homicidal gown is dumb, Strickland seems to say, wait till I get you to root for the dress.
Described as “artery red,” the dress looks like a slight throwback within In Fabric’s quasi-’80s setting: long-sleeved, knee-length, with a modest plunge at the neckline. On one side of the waist sits a black rosebud, lying in elegant wait for the right moment to strike. Still, its first buyer, a bank teller and single mom in her 50s named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) returning to the dating pool after a divorce and in need of a romantic outfit, wonders if it’s “a little risqué.” But she’s quickly persuaded into a sale by a witchy department store clerk (Fatma Mohamed) despite the latter’s penchant for talking like a perfume commercial (“a purchase on the horizon, a panoply of temptation”). Before long, Sheila suspects that something is wrong with the dress, well before she discovers that the last person to wear it, the model who posed in it for the store catalog, died—in one of the film’s many mischievously larkish details—in an apparent zebra trampling.
Back at the department store, the clerks gather in a coven, ritualistically bathing a bleeding mannequin and arousing their leader. In Fabric is long on freaky atmospherics and short on explanations, which is probably all the better—nothing is going to make a “killer dress” seem less dopey. (Strickland’s oblique approach does make some plot developments more difficult to grasp.) What matters more than the universe of the witches is how they exploit desire to create vulnerability, and how easy it is to lure victims with the promise of discounted goods. By the end, so strong is the spell they cast on customers that it leads to the destruction of the store. Or maybe there was never a spell at all.
In a seeming side plot, Sheila is nitpicked about her job performance by two superiors (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt), who criticize her handshake for not being “meaningful” enough and inquire about the precise number of minutes she spends in the bathroom while on the clock. It’s a scene that might play as cringe comedy if it weren’t for Sheila’s innate dignity, which makes the interrogation feel closer to shuddering horror. (It’s not a coincidence, I think, that Sheila is black and her bosses are younger white men, one of whom pounces on the chance to call a stranger a racist in a hapless attempt at camaraderie.) When the film reveals that the bean-counting duo are also in charge of a washing-machine repairman named Reg (Leo Bill), whose travails with the dress make up the second half of In Fabric, something clicks into place. Sheila and Reg may well never have met, but they’re united by corporate consolidation and employee jerk-arounds.
The latter hour of In Fabric arranges a collision between the dramatic pageantry of horror and abject domestic mundanity. Reg is the most boring man alive—one whose dullness, unbeknownst to him, hypnotizes the people around him into a blank-eyed stupor. (Accordingly, one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes involves him cutting up a butternut squash.) Reg is given the dress to wear at his stag night, and it soon becomes the center of many a squabble between him and his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires). As the dress floats above the couple while they sleep at night, fluttering in its indestructible refinement and invincible otherworldliness, one starts to wonder: Doesn’t the dress deserve to kill better people? Reg and Babs aren’t hateful, exactly, but their pathetic drabness make a case that the dress is getting the raw end of the deal. A final image, evoking a sweatshop comprising the dress’s victims, suggests that even a primordial force like the dress is trapped in a newer but perhaps more inescapable cage: the capitalist logic of nonstop consumption.