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September 14, 2018

‘In Fabric’ Review: Hilarious Horror Abounds in Another Giallo Gem From Peter Strickland [TIFF]

In fabric review

Berberian Sound Studio and Duke of Burgundy director Peter Strickland once again pays homage to Euro-horror of yesterday, crafting a sumptuous sensory overload. In Fabric finds the filmmaker following a haunted dress from a demonic department store, and it’s every bit as weird and amusing as that scenario suggests.

Who needs the much-hyped Suspiria remake when you can watch In Fabric? Totally twisted, super stylish, and frequently funny, the new fetishistic nightmare-dream from Peter Strickland is a loving recreation of Euro-horror and giallo tropes of the past, lovingly referenced in nearly every frame. 

The setup: there’s a dress, and it’s haunted. Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The phantom threads come from a department store straight out Dark Shadows by way of the Seventh Circle of Hell. Managed by a cadaverous, ghoulish man and his mostly silent female cohorts, all of whom are dressed like vampires from a lurid romance paperback cover, the department store is in the midst of a huge sale – a sale that inspires women in England to come calling.

One such woman is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, thoroughly charming here), a bank teller in a bit of a rut. She’s just learned her ex-husband has started dating again, and she finds herself frequently questioned by her managers. On top of that, her son (Jaygann Ayeh) is forever hanging around the house with his very tall, very rude girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie, making the most of a limited role). While shopping at the store, Sheila encounters a red dress, and is encouraged to purchase it by the totally bonkers saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed, stealing the entire movie and constantly tossing off cryptic, overly wordy sayings).

If the store’s employees weren’t a dead giveaway that something is amiss, the dress itself offers some ominous clues. Even though the tag declares the item to not be in Sheila’s size, it fits her perfectly. She also learns that the only other person to wear the dress – a model (The Duke of Burgundy‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen) in the store’s catalogue – met a gruesome end. (Mohamed’s clerk assures Sheila the dress has been thoroughly washed since).

Sheila begins dating again through a dating service, while little by little, bad things begin happening to her – and she’s almost certain the dress is to blame. This first half of the film is a gothic delight, exploding with dazzling style and dark comedy. Strickland uses the visual language of giallo movies and more to conjure up imagery both fetishistic and disturbing (and hilarious). Constantly winking at the audience, but never in an annoying way, Strickland’s filmmaking style is a lavish visual feast. As Sheila’s story unfolds, Strickland cuts in bizarre vignettes at the store – shots of the female clerks clapping their hands as they follow after a hoard of customers, effectively herding them like cattle; a lengthy scene involving a sexual tryst with a bleeding mannequin; a slow-motion shot of semen flying through the air (High Life wasn’t the only film at TIFF this year to make use of bodily fluids). And time and time again, we see the red dress floating and billowing through the air like a crimson ghost. All of this is hypnotic in its strangeness, and you’re in no hurry to see it end. 

Unfortunately, In Fabric is a kind of anthology film, and just when we’ve grown enamored with Sheila’s story, Strickland pulls the rug out and moves on to an entirely new tale. This one focuses on milquetoast washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill), who is on the verge of marrying Babs (Hayley Squires). Reg ends up with the dress as well, and sure enough, unfortunate events start happening again. This section of the film has its moments – there’s a consistently funny running gag involving women (and men) growing incredibly horny any time Reg rattles off bland washing machine tech-speak – but it feels too far removed from what came before. The Sheila section is stronger, and I wish Strickland had stuck it out through the entire film. Not helping is the fact that the film is overlong by about ten to twenty minutes. Had the filmmaker simply nixed this second story and fleshed out the first, In Fabric might be something close to a masterpiece.

Even so, In Fabric builds to a lunatic crescendo, ratcheting up the madness and mayhem for a genuinely disturbing denouement. While this isn’t Strickland’s best work – I have no idea if he’ll ever be able to top The Duke of BurgundyIn Fabric is yet another showcase for the filmmaker’s considerable talents. Sure, Strickland is technically borrowing from his predecessors, but he manages to inject enough originality to make his works solely his own. In Fabric hums with electric energy, employing impeccable sound design and often jarring editing to create a sensory overload. As the film draws to a close, you’ll likely find yourself grinning with wicked glee at the excess of it all.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

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