In Fabric has commitment issues. Which is a pity, because I could see the two of us having a meaningful, exciting relationship. I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve seen from British eclecticist Peter Strickland, and all signs pointed towards this more pulpy, crowd-pleasing A24 horror effort being totally my thing. But the movie quickly shows speed wobbles from heading too fast through three different subplots, only two of which even appear in the trailer. Any two of the stories contained within Strickland’s sumptuous-but-uneven vision would work together as a solid, interesting genre entry, but three’s company.
So let’s check out the three movies inside In Fabric separately ― detached from one another, which is precisely how they came across to me while watching.
1. The Marianne Jean-Baptiste ‘Twilight Zone’ Episode Movie
This is the film we were sold. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a matronly bank teller and recent divorcee, tired of trying to find love in the newspaper personals column, and of listening to her slacker son (Jaygann Ayeh) eating out his older, bitchy girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie, nicely catty). She decides (or is seduced) to purchase an ‘artery red’ evening frock to wear on another disappointing date, from Dentley and Soper’s Trusted Department Store ― the film’s most compelling setting, all polished mahogany and arch, dated signage. It takes Sheila way too long to realise that the dress is charged with some kind of ancient, consumptive evil, right down to the satanic phrases embroided along its hem (Phantom Thread (2017) x Rosemary’s Baby (1968)????).
Strickland is happy to wring laughs from the sight of a dress creeping along the floor towards its unwitting victims, but doesn’t go too much further than merely doodling around in the horror sandbox. There are no real scares, beyond some quick arterial spurts of blood, and midnight encounters with mannequins along a highway. We are, admittedly, treated to the same terrific foley as Berberian Sound Studio (2012) ― scissors chewing through a fashion catalogue, the spine-tinglingly uncomfortable sound of a coat-hanger scraping violently back and forth on its rail. But Jean-Baptiste is doing too much heavy lifting in terms of constructing our sense of empathy for her sweet protagonist, and it’s mostly in vain – she’s doing valiant work in the foreground of a luscious exercise in giallo style, half Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected, half Fulci. Loose narrative threads are picked up and dropped, which isn’t ideal in terms of film or fashion.
2. The Suspiria Knock-Off, Department Store Coven Movie
This is the best movie! After all, there IS totally something vampiric and lusty in retail – in the blank-minded pursuit of material, as much for flesh as for the perfect camel-coloured asphodel dinner jacket.
Prior to the screening, Strickland spoke for a minute about the somewhat kinky impetus behind In Fabric ― his own childhood bewilderment at the specificities of high street department stores. That’s why the department store setting feels as rich as it does, as sexually charged and seductive. It’s visual merchandising as fetish object ― mannequins are broken apart into perfect legs and torsos, reminiscent of the endless lines of kicking legs in a Busby Berkely sequence, or the surrealists’ tendency to deconstruct women into only their most sexy components, like Dali’s red lip couch.
For this genuinely funny, gothic subplot to truly earn its place at the centre of the film, we would need less of the script pretending to really give a shit about any of its Muggle characters, which is a pity because, as stated, Jean-Baptiste is a lovely screen presence. It’s like Strickland wanted to have his slice of camp cake and eat it too; to make us care about the characters trapped in his hyper-stylised, 70s-inflected paper doll house.
In light of this, Fatma Mohamed is the film’s most admirable, anchoring presence, a terrifically mannered character in the vein of Anjelica Huston in The Witches (1990), or Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch (2016). Basically any cool witch. Watching her operatically flick open a shopping bag, or deliver purple lines like, ‘Your dressing room is ready for you and your dress to coalesce into one glorious unit’, is the greatest indication of the heights of camp the film might’ve achieved. All of this stuff works. So let’s get on to the most mysterious and confusing aspect of In Fabric’s indulgent narrative.
3. The Bickering Couple Movie?
Bizarrely, the trailer to In Fabric completely omits any footage or reference to its flabby second half, concerning a middle-class couple who come into possession of the evil killer dress after Sheila’s story abruptly concludes. Suddenly, all sense of place that Strickland has spent the past hour constructing suddenly disappears ― are we still in the 70s, even? Many of the same settings appear, but without the glorious double-exposure looniness of Sheila’s segment. Here, the diversions back to Dentley and Soper’s department store become even more of a relief, up to and including a feverish, bloodthirsty Black Friday-esque sale that acts as the closest thing possible to a satisfying ending.
Until then, we get some sporadically funny scenes of the new protagonists struggling to assert themselves amidst crushing bureaucracy, and some timid callbacks to dialogue from earlier in the film. One sole erotic scene, involving hi-def footage of jizz squirting across a black expanse and of a mannequin growing pubes, sits stranded in the middle of the proceedings, doomed to never be mentioned or bested in ludicrous sensuality by anything else the film has to offer.
Strickland’s films have always shown some fidelity to camp, to European subgenres which fixate on glamour and heightened performance of identity. So why is this, the most overtly entertaining and silly Strickland film yet, so uneven? His Duke Of Burgundy (2014) took itself more seriously than In Fabric, but to greater reward. Maybe it’s because here, camp feels like a defense mechanism ― Strickland puts so much work and vision into setting up a high-concept period horror film with a sympathetic protagonist, and then pussies out by going for whatever minor delights and gags came to mind, rather than elaborating on the solid characters and concept he began with. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh because of my heightened expectations, bolstered by the Hammer and biddy horror influences at play, but In Fabric ends up feeling more like a fun homage than art in its own right ― not couture, just a hand-me-down.
In Fabric will be playing on 10 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen