Following up Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, director Peter Strickland completes his hat trick with In Fabric, a sensuous, surreal and hysterical tour de force. Taking its cues from the cinema of Dario Argento and Italian horror, In Fabric gives audiences the best British horror film since Don’t Look Now.
Even among the classy films of new horror cinema, rarely is such care and attention paid to literally every frame. From the teasing opening credits, it’s no exaggeration that each image of In Fabric is hypnotically, unsettlingly beautiful. Such is Strickland’s sense of cinema that the mere act of opening a box becomes a lurchingly violent, almost erotic act. The obvious reference point for In Fabric is Dario Argento’s Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino’s lauded remake recently premiered in Venice), and the lurid colours, ubiquitous fetishisation, and dream logic all feel like classic Euro-horror. There’s even a coven of glamorous witches thrown in for good measure.
But along with the Italian aesthetics, there’s a distinctly British feel to Strickland’s tale of supernatural consumerism. Like the anthologised horror of Hammer studios, In Fabric is divided into two distinct stories, both concerning the horrors wreaked by a sinister red dress. The first is the stronger of the two, concerning divorced single mother Sheila (Marine Jean-Baptiste), juggling her weirdly pedantic demands of her bosses, her surly 18-year old son and his arrogant older girlfriend (a brilliantly venomous Gwendoline Christie). When Sheila needs a new dress for a date, the mysterious, riddle-speaking saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed) is on hand to offer assistance.
Like a mannequin brought to life, the saleswoman is an incredible, impenetrable creation, less a character and a more construct of consumerist desire and vampiric fetishism. Importantly, her strange behaviour and speech patterns are not aberrant in this world, but rather an extreme version of the verbal tics of the Scarfolk-esque banks managers and hypnotic washing-machine repair man who populate the film’s anonymous town.
As one might expect from the director of Berberian Sound Studio, the sound design is equal to the force of the visual imagery. The customers’ incoherent chuntering in the department store is a disorienting, hyperreal gabble, whereas the score is one of sharp, jolting echoes, metallic screams and repetitive bass drones. This is to say nothing of the power of the dress itself, a malevolent, vampiric force that ties the film’s two stories together.
Never has a garment of clothing invoked such terror and fascination, from the explicit erotic power of its crimson red, to the way that it eerily hanging in space, like a ghostly voyeur. Strickland frequently captures the dress billowing in the wind, shot against a pitch black background, a shot that is revisited throughout key moments in the film. As a pure image, it is astonishingly, hypnotically beautifully, but it is also perfectly fetishistic, at once a spectral object of desire and horror – a perfect encapsulation of the terrible fascination that the film In Fabric inspires.
The Toronto International Film Festival 2018 takes place from 6-16 September.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell