Bloody Mannequin Vaginas and Evil Babies: Inside the Most Gorgeously Grotesque Movie of the Year
Surrealist master Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy”) is back with “In Fabric,” a gory ode to Dario Argento about a cursed red dress that has to be seen to be believed.
Peter Strickland is a genre fetishist with a dark, delirious sense of humor, and In Fabric is his most ecstatically demented fantasia to date. As demonstrated by his prior Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland has a fondness for European horror and erotic cinema of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and for his latest, he dives headfirst into Dario Argento-ish territory for the tale of a striking red dress whose allure is downright deadly.
The notion of a killer evening gown can’t be taken wholly seriously, and the greatness of In Fabric (in theaters Dec. 6) stems from its ability to revel in its conceit’s absurdity while simultaneously exploiting it for a sharp, unsettling examination of female desire, societal attitudes toward women, and the advertising-saturated capitalist environment in which we exist. It’s a phantasmagoric haute-couture critique of consumerism by way of a psychosexual head trip about human covetousness, insecurity and passion—replete with bloody mannequin vaginas, childlike drawings of areas where the sun don’t shine, and cataclysmic fires raging in tune with characters’ libidinous cravings and materialistic mania.
Like the bastard offspring of Mulholland Drive and Phantom Thread, Strickland’s storytelling is of a haunting, hypnotic variety. Rife with images of spiraling and circular objects and structures, spinning figures and camerawork, mirror reflections, and overlapping translucent portraits of men and women, In Fabric is an abyss of highly charged motifs and symbols into which one tumbles. That descent into irrational terrain is similarly experienced by the first of the writer/director’s two nominal ’80s-era protagonists, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a recently separated bank teller and mother to twentysomething Vince (Jaygann Ayeh). On the basis of surreal TV commercials, Sheila visits department store Dentley & Soper’s to check out their post-Christmas sale items. There, she spies a size-36 red dress that fits her like a glove and, pressed by the store’s lead saleswoman Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed)—who speaks in wackily florid language embellished by a strange accent—she reluctantly buys it.
By completing this purchase, and subsequently donning the robe for dinners with men she’s met through an old-school dating service, Sheila falls victim to a tailor-made evil force. In Fabric makes that clear from a message stitched into the dress’ hem (“You who wear me will know me”), as well as via an early scene in which Luckmoore—a pale-faced spook in a frilly, high-necked dress and with deep-red fingernails—removes her wig to reveal a bald head in a basement chamber filled with mannequins, and then crawls face-down into a dumbwaiter in order to descend to hellish parts unknown. Dentley & Soper’s, it appears, is home to a coven of decorously demonic witches, led by an elderly male proprietor (Richard Bremmer) who, in a later sequence, masturbates to the sight of Luckmoore and another saleswoman caressing a nude mannequin that boasts a hairy crotch which oozes blood—the latter of which Luckmoore coats her fingers in and smears over her chin as her boss climaxes.
Sound insane enough yet? In Fabric is the unhinged Suspiria homage that Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake failed to be, plumbing the intersection of female lust, loneliness and fear at the same time that it pricks the way modern society systematically preys upon women by bombarding them with shopping-ready standards about beauty and self-worth. Bitterly jealous of her ex-husband for having shacked up with a new girlfriend, as well as her son for his X-rated affair with Gwen (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie), the sexually repressed Sheila—frequently identified not by her name but by her cold, impersonal phone number—is an ideal target for the dress. Drawn to whatever hot-blooded impulse it can find, the vestment is satanic carnality incarnate, whether spectrally hovering and fluttering in the air or slinking along the ground in search of its next host.
Strickland plays his dress-related action for borderline-abstract horror thrills, full of screaming faces, bound wrists, and shattered glass—elements that are foreshadowed by an intro freeze-frame montage that establishes his material’s visual language and lurid red-and-black color palette. It additionally introduces Cavern of Anti-Matter’s entrancing and creepy score, teeming with cascading electronic melodies (which repeat, cyclically), whispered voices and sudden shrieking sounds. As if that feverish aesthetic mélange weren’t enough, the director also delivers frantic black-and-white still-photo collages of faceless folks walking in and around mall plazas, turning what might otherwise be pedestrian sights of shoppers into a strident assault on the senses.
Just as Strickland likes to alternate between close-ups and compositions that cut off his characters’ heads (the better to highlight their nether regions), his film’s tone flip-flops between ominous menace and bizarre drollness. Carrying some pointed commentary about everyday misogyny, Sheila’s interactions with her two bank superiors are downright bonkers, and such comedy is even more pronounced once In Fabric concludes Sheila’s story and, in a switcheroo as unexpected as it is enlivening, shifts its attention to appliance repairman Reg (Leo Bill), who on the eve of his marriage to Babs (Hayley Squires), acquires the dress when he’s forced to wear it during his stag party.
Reg has a habit of putting people into a literal trance when talking technical shop, which would seem peculiar if not for the fact that In Fabric plays like a waking dream, regardless of whether its drama is situated in reality or traversing its characters’ nocturnal imaginations. Before long, the line between the real and the unreal has all but evaporated, and what one is left with is a head-spinning saga in which washing machines implode under the strain of unholy garments, people receive scarring burns from their clothing, and newborn infants exit the womb and promptly give their fathers the middle finger.
Nonetheless, no matter how outlandish it becomes, In Fabric is a coherently experienced vision, one that devises its own distinctive wavelength from the get-go and asks its audience to follow it through to the fire-and-brimstone end. It may fall just short of earning the title of 2019’s maddest movie (that still belongs to The Lighthouse), but in its evocation of tactile-textile terror, it proves a stylishly sinister nightmare about the pleasures and pain of high fashion.