She thought she was simply buying a sexy red dress, off the rack. But when that frock came home with her, so did the supernatural.
Writer/director Peter Strickland had a wicked vision in mind when he created this campy horror film, which has a style that is reminiscent of the 1977 cult classic Suspiria, by famed 1970s/80s Italian horror director Dario Argento. Argento gained notoriety for his arty mixture of thriller, mystery, psychological and erotic elements versus unbridled gore. Director Luca Guadagnino (Oscar-nominee Call Me by Your Name) attempted to mimic Argento’s style with his misguided 2018 remake of Suspiria. His failure proves that stepping into this horror subgenre successfully is not that easy.
Credit Strickland for succeeding where others have not. His direction exhibits a quirky, artistic style. Scenes melt into each other effortlessly. There’s a dazzling visual flare that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen for 118 minutes. You’re hooked until he’s through weaving a very sordid tale about a dress with a mind of its own and a curse that is deadly.
Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Secrets & Lies) ) is very conscientious. She’s a chatty and polite bank teller. As a recently divorced single mom, she lives with her young adult son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh, The Souvenir). Her offspring, judging by the moans and groans that emanate from his bedroom at night when he’s hosting his ladyfriend (Gwendoline Christie), should have been living on his own years ago.
Sheila, tired of being alone, puts her profile on a dating page and is about to meet a new man for dinner. Wanting to make the right impression, she heads to a bizarre London department store and is tempted to buy something wild, for a woman of a certain age. A creepy-looking store clerk (Fatma Mohamed), who slithers down the aisles like Morticia Adams (of The Adams Family), champions a low-cut red dress. Sheila: “Isn’t it a little risqué? I don’t normally wear this kind of thing.” Clerk: “Be bold. Your date will compliment you. Touch it. Feel it. Here.”
Sheila’s restaurant rendezvous doesn’t go well. He’s a bore. Self-absorbed. No feel for small talk. No sense of humor. Pity. But at least she has the dress she adores. Unfortunately, the feeling is not mutual. The frock gives her a rash. It moves around on its own, causes a series of accidents, mishaps and oddities that leave puddles of blood in its wake.
There is something so matter-of-fact about Sheila that when unnatural things vex her you feel extra sorry about her misfortune. Her life turns to tatters. So do the lives of anyone who dons the scarlet garment.
Strickland sets the scare meter at moderate. The horror is consistent but not explosive. Ghastly in the right places. A little mangling here. Oral sex there. A washing machine run amuck. Untimely deaths. The director brushes on the macabre like an artist choosing the right colors, shapes and textures for a Salvador Dali painting. Tasteful. Sick. Weird. More like an art film gone askew. Not at all like a tacky B-movie.
The costume designer (Jo Thompson) threads together a catchy wardrobe for the cast, who look prepared to go to work or a freak show, depending. Sets (Adrian Greenwood) and production design (Paki Smith), from Shelia’s cramped two-story flat to a department store with a secret dumbwaiter that leads to a coven, pull you into a working-class life that clashes with an underworld.
The score (Cavern of Anti-Matter) has both whimsical and sinister tones. Ditto the sound design (Rob Entwistle). Editing (Matyas Fekete) the footage down to a fairly lengthy movie that doesn’t feel long is not an easy feat. The rainbow of colors (Bobbie Cousins art director) is well captured by cinematography (Ari Wegner) with lighting that is particularly sensual during a very intimate and sexy peeping tom scene. The camerawork evokes a pervy feeling as you become the watcher observing a voyeur.
Baptiste leaves her everywoman imprint all over the footage. Sheila’s inflection, nonchalant delivery and stoic facial expressions rarely waver, even in the presence of two overbearing bosses, played snidely by Steve Oram and Julian Barratt. Mohamed’s accent, as the temptress clerk, is so thick you could trip over it, and the clandestine life the character leads gets spookier every minute. Jaygann Ayeh’s chemistry with Baptiste is so natural it’s as if Sheila was his real helicopter mom and he was her actual ungrateful millennial son.
Even with the dry humor and intelligent writing, make no mistakes about it, In Fabric is designed to scare the s— out of you. It does. Small eerie moments pile up, fraying your nerves, building and building. Like someone first sticking needles in your back, then switching to shivs.