When I was small, my grandmother was a volunteer at a charity shop in regional Australia, and, whenever I visited, I would spend much of my time trampolining on giant bins of second-hand clothes that were housed in (what I remember to be) a giant warehouse of neglected old garments. The smell was bad, but it is one that I can still recall; so deeply is the scent of musty, second-hand clothes embedded in my memory that I experience a slight dizzy sensation whenever I walk into an op-shop or vintage clothing store today.
This is the closest I can come to conjuring an accurate description of how it feels to experience British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s latest film, In Fabric. At the world premiere of this, his fourth fiction feature, Strickland recalled that his inspiration was the discovery of an unsightly stain on a piece of second-hand clothing he’d purchased. From that relatively banal kernel blossomed what is, even by Strickland’s standards, one of the most stylistically ambitious and genuinely overwhelming movies in recent memory. This is no small feat for a director responsible for such unique, thoroughly intoxicating experimental genre films like Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014).
The story is, in its own peculiar way, relatively simple: there is a dress, it is red, and people die shortly after they have worn it. The film begins as humble bank worker and recently divorced single mum, Gwen (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), decides to dive into blind dating after her son accidentally reveals her ex-husband now has a new “bird”. A date with the promisingly named Adonis (Anthony Adjekum) leads her to a sale at the distinctly gothic Dentley & Soper’s department store — further observation about the store or its emptiness — where she purchases the accursed gown, sold to her by a sales assistant, played by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed. Like Mohamed’s previous performance as the enigmatic carpenter in The Duke of Burgundy, her scenes are driven by a physical presence and incandescent script so perfectly delivered that to merely recite her lines would be a small act of violence in itself. To give an indication of the linguistic carnival that Gwen finds herself in, she is directed not to the changing rooms, but to the “transformational sphere” to try on the dress that will soon wreak such destruction. Everything about In Fabric is excessive, and delightfully so.
Gwen, we soon discover, is the first of many to cross paths with the seemingly innocuous off-the-rack dress. After wreaking havoc on Gwen and her family it finds its way to plumber Reg (Leo Bill) who it is forced on on his bucks night. The haunted clothing motif is not wholly original in itself — there is, of course, Powell and Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes that tells the famous tale of the eponymous cursed footwear and its impact on the life of a ballet dancer, and Tobe Hooper more directly tackled the haunted dress concept in 1990, with his Mädchen Amick-fronted TV movie I’m Dangerous Tonight. But, like all of Strickland’s features since 2009’s Katalin Varga, the real question isn’t the ‘what’ as much as it is the ‘how’. Like both Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, as well as Strickland’s heady, ambitious short “The Cobbler’s Lot” in the horror anthology The Field Guide to Evil, In Fabric is so effervescently tactile that the repeated image of the ghostly dress wispily feels like it is exhaling from the screen itself. Billowing as it hovers above its sleeping victims, its silky textures caress the audience as much as those in the film unfortunate enough to cross its path. Where Hooper turns the idea of a haunted dress into a pedestrian, colour-by-numbers television movie approach in I’m Dangerous Tonight, Strickland — unsurprisingly — turns it into a high concept art film.
So the good news is, if you have a Bachelor of Arts degree, there’s enough of your “haptic visuality” across In Fabric to satisfy your academic urges — if that’s what brings you to Strickland’s movies. But the real pleasure of the film is far more ribald: while the director’s previous films have often had a streak of dark humour, In Fabric is an unabashed horror-comedy, and an extremely funny one at that. Marked by this extreme, overcooked verbosity, it is at time difficult not to read this as Strickland actively mocking the complex-for-complexity’s sake way that critics with a penchant for performative intellectualism have approached his previous work.
There were clues the film would take this more comic direction, particularly the casting of cult comedians and filmmakers Julian Barrett (The Mighty Boosh) and Steve Oram (Sightseers, The End of the F**king World) as Gwen’s managers. And while they certainly deliver on the comedy front, even performers of their calibre pale in comparison to Fatma Mohamed’s gloriously perverse and laugh-out-loud funny Eurogothic sales assistant. Combined with a distinct 1970s aesthetic (the decade we assume – but can never be quite sure – it is set), In Fabric could be glibly pitched as Strickland’s Are You Being Served? via Edward Gorey and Jess Franco. As always, though, the filmmaker has made it something joyfully his own, and with an attention to minutiae that so many of us have come to expect from him.