'In Fabric': Peter Strickland Adorns A Deliciously Phantasmagorical Bizzaro Horror About A Haunted Dress [TIFF Review]

An unnerving seamstress fingerbangs and then tastes the vaginal blood of a mannequin which has suddenly come to life. A pervy old man watches from outside the window display and wanks off as slow-motion ejaculate dreamily glides across the screen. Welcome to “In Fabric,” another off-the-wall movie from exquisite English filmmaker Peter Strickland that’s also, at times, batshit crazy.

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A pastichey homagiste who fetishizes the obscure, ethereal corners of cinema, one could argue that without the filmmakers that came before him, Strickland, obviously a nostalgia-heavy cineaste, would cease to exist, ephemerally dissipating into the nothingness. And yet, he’s one of the most original, imaginative and playful filmmakers working today even if owes a huge debt to outré, cult European genre films of the ’60s and ’70s most audiences haven’t seen. His elegant, bizarre mashups of giallo (given tribute in “Berberian Sound Studio), sensual softcore erotica (“The Duke Of Burgundy“), psychedelia and creepshow, surreal horror comes into play once more in “In Fabric,” a beguiling story about a cursed, ghost-possessed dress which passes from person to person, with devastating consequences. It’s also pretty bananas.

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As usual, Strickland’s latest is delirious, deeply delicious in sumptuous form and sly humor. It’s an oddball film, even for the unusual filmmaker. Strickland seems to attack each film with a very specific freaky synthesis in mind and for “In Fabric,” its collaging kitchen sink English realist sensibilities and delicately stitching them onto very far-out, often hilarious, phantasmagorical ideas of eerie horror. So, to that end, his “lead,” or at least the first victim, the dress haunts before moving on, is actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whom many remember for her Academy Award-nominated performance in Mike Leigh‘s English social-realist film “Secrets And Lies” (she wrote the music to Leigh’s “Career Girls” too).

Set against the backdrop of a busy winter sales period in a Kafka-esque department store run by the extremely eccentric, Eastern-European witchy sales-matron (an irresistibly deadpan Fatma Mohamed who is sidesplittingly funny and speaks in archaic verse), the peculiar “In Fabric” follows a gorgeous, sensual, enchanting dress that seems to seduce anyone who comes in contact with it. The story is admittedly scant: the seductive frock captivates and then corrupts or kills indiscriminately (and without much moral compunction) and it’s essentially a baton pass of two different sets of victims.

The alluring crimson gown moves from the lonely divorcee (Jean-Baptiste), forced to deal with ungrateful son and his nasty, presumptuous girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie in a small, but memorable role), to the wife (Hayley Squires) of a hapless washing machine repairman (Leo Bill). There’s also a kind of nearly nonsensical subplot of amusingly interrogative bureaucrats portrayed by English cult-faves Steve Oram and Julian Barratt who grill the protagonists over the banalest of workplace infractions, but hey, this isn’t remotely typical storytelling.

And at the center of it all is this mysterious, extremely unconventional department store run by the aforementioned Euro sorceress and her sinister silent partner. Occasionally tedious, Strickland’s fourth feature-length effort is a bit patchier in its story and even coherence at times (the handoff is out there) but what “In Fabric” lacks in narrative it more than makes up in its outlandish, avante-garde horror dissonance. One shouldn’t understate how funny it is either (“A dramatic affliction has compromised our precious department store. Get out graciously,” is now probably my favorite line of 2018 dialogue).

Scored with bewitching, musique concrète soundscape-clashes by Cavern Of Anti-Matter (Tim Gane, ex of Stereolab‘s new retro/futurist electronic band), Strickland’s taste in carefully chosen soundtrack collaborators who can help him disorient and hypnotize the viewer remains impeccable. COAM’s mesmeric sounds seem to goose the Strickland’s experimental tendencies and the disarming, cut and paste-y horror moments that feel like Stan Brakhage has suddenly burned through the celluloid to f*ck up the film.

All these superlatives aside, “In Fabric,” as wonderfully weird and ghostly as it is, is not quite as masterful as the immaculately-crafted ‘Duke Of Burgundy.’ It’s not quite as polished, it doesn’t look quite as sumptuous and hyper-stylized, and frankly, looks like it was shot on a more modest budget. Nevertheless, it’s quite delightful, at least for those that appreciate the director’s idiosyncratic take on Eurotica cinesploitation. At the very least, one must admire the meticulous embroidery that allows Strickland to move from the tones of campy and kitschy to something ensconced in terrifying menace.

Are all esoteric Peter Strickland films the same? Do they all have strange, dreamy desire at their core slavishly decorated with the superb textiles of inaccessible, foreign film art horror porn cinema? Sure, possibly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not often an opaque pleasure. Stuck in a ’70s time warp where wife-swapping parties, banana yellow kitchens, and itchy Carl Sagan-esque turtlenecks are the rule of the day, Peter Strickland is an undoubtedly acquired taste, but he’ll likely never fail to fascinate the adventurous cinephile unafraid of a little creepy/sexy obscuro horror. [B+]

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