You have to admire Peter Strickland’s passion and adventurousness. After making one of the decade’s best films with 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy, an austere romantic drama, he returns with an oddity that defies easy classification. In Fabric can be most crudely described as a film about a killer dress, and it’s certainly enjoyable at face-value as a darkly comedic, giallo-inspired horror romp, but Strickland lends an inventive touch that not only makes the film a visual feast, but imbues it with enough subtext to make the haunting imagery leave a substantial mark after the credits roll.
Strickland’s previous feature, The Duke of Burgundy, featured an intriguing premise – a lesbian couple entrenched in a sado-masochistic relationship grapples with the dispairity in their sexual and romantic desires – and, though there were plenty of opportunities for folly – like discussions of a human toilet – he played it for serious drama throughout and crafted a psychologially and emotionally rich examination of relationship dynamics and the need for compromise. The film framed its risque content with a formal elegance, creating an atmosphere that was altogether entrancing. In Fabric, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind, embracing the absurdity of its conceit and leaning into the dark comedy, though still grounding the main character with an emotional honesty that contrasts the ridiculous world she inhabits.
The homicidal dress’ eventual owner is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced bank teller who leads an unfulfilled life. Her son, Vince, lives with her, but he’s preoccupied with his girlfriend whose vindictiveness seems to amplify his resentment of Sheila. Recently having decided to start dating again, she visits a department store and purchases the alluring red dress after some coaxing from the unusual sales clerk. It’s not long before she notices something is wrong: a grizzly rash begins to form on her skin, the dress refuses to be washed, violently destroying her washing machine and injuring her in the process, and at one point after having been shredded to pieces, the dress appears miraculously intact. Admittedly, the film takes a while for the dress to ultimately turn lethal, but Strickland smartly utilizes the time to develop the characters – eliciting sympathy for Sheila, even while generating laughs for her ridiculous circumstances – and immerse the viewer in the bizarre, surreal tone, so we’re better prepared for the madness that’s to come.
I won’t spoil where the story goes from there, but it takes some bold and interesting turns, playing with structure and narrative in a way that sets it apart from other modern horror films that similarly pay homage to an era of schlocky slashers. Strickland isn’t content with merely evoking the atmosphere of his influences, though he does an incredible job in that respect. He injects off-kilter humor to intensify the eerie tone. The overtly sinister department store clerk who sells Sheila the dress is hilarious at first, with her stilted dialogue and peculiar mannerisms, but things take a jarring turn in a bizarre ritualistic scene that involves a mannequin, which was cut down to get the film to an R-rating. At face-value, the film is a standard supernatural tale, but Strickland brilliantly disorients his audience by taking familiar, comforting images of consumerism – magazine and television advertising, vintage stores and decor – and distorting them with a ghastly aura.
Strickland blurs the line between amusing and creepy so adeptly in the first half, it’s a shame that the second half eventually pushes too far in both directions. The somewhat bifurcated structure allows Strickland to explore new territory at the film’s halfway point, but instead of taking the film in a different narrative direction or digging deeper into the thematic subtext of materialism, he aims for a more awkward, uncomfortable, and goofier tone that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Quentin Dupieux film. I admire Strickland’s willingness to experiment with the film’s structure and embrace the surreal and absurd elements of its concept, but he takes it too far, making In Fabric less cohesive than it should be, even if the film eventually course corrects, coming together for an energetic climax and a chilling coda.
For many, shopping is a form of self-care; we get a sense of excitement stepping inside a store or standing in front of a dressing room mirror wearing an outfit that imbues us with confidence. Thankfully, Strickland doesn’t seek to admonish his audience. He’s more interested in keenly illustrating the absurdity of materialism through satire and horror, making In Fabric feel like a 1970s Sears catalog distorted through an LSD-drenched fever dream.