Peter Strickland’s In Fabric is a movie that understands the almost spiritual connection a person can have with a piece of clothing that they’ve stumbled upon while wandering through the racks of a glamorous department store. We’ve all had those moments where it feels as if a garment’s calling out to you as if it’s always been a part of your wardrobe—and all it wants to do is be back in your possession where it belongs.
In Fabric takes those kinds of moments and turns them into a spellbinding story of a simple red dress that’s seemingly haunted, or perhaps possessed, by a malevolent presence. Anyone who puts the dress on immediately feels like a heightened, more powerful version of themselves, but it isn’t long after people put it on that inexplicable, horrific things begin to happen around the garment that put its owners in danger.
After spending years dedicating herself to her family, Sheila Woodchapel (Broadchurch’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is at a point in her life where basically everyone she’s ever committed herself to has more or less deserted her. Sheila’s marriage has ended in divorce, and her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) has little to no interest in really doing anything with his life—aside from worshipping his significantly older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), who has an open disdain for his mother. Even though Sheila’s steadfast in her dedication to putting in her fair share of the necessary work that comes with being an adult, her efforts go unappreciated in both her personal and professional lives.
When we first meet her in In Fabric, Sheila’s in need of something that makes her feel alive again. She’s hopeful that eventually, one of the men responding to her personal ads in the newspaper will end up being someone that she actually wants to spend time with, but for the time being she puts her energy into simply keeping the ball of her life rolling, albeit rather aimlessly.
The mundaneness of Sheila’s life is part of what makes her gravitate towards Dentley and Soper’s, a local department store that has a dedicated, almost cult-like group of fans who never miss a chance to take advantage of the store’s sales. While browsing through the store’s dresses, Sheila encounters Miss Luckmore (Fatma Mohamed), an eerily invasive store clerk who insists that Sheila consider the striking red dress that drives In Fabric’s story forward. The dress isn’t really the sort of thing that Sheila would normally wear, but something about it calls to her, and Luckmore promises that it would make all of her dreams come true if only she would take it home and make it hers. It isn’t long after Sheila buys the dress that the edges of In Fabric’s reality begin to warp and you see what kind of menacing figure Luckmore and her fellow clerks actually are.
Strickland’s script frames the department store as a place of magic and danger where people willingly sacrifice themselves (metaphorically speaking) in order to purchase things that make them feel special. Though the strange things that begin to happen around Sheila are plenty scary in their own regard, what actually ends up being most terrifying is the way that Luckmore and the other clerks lure unsuspecting customers into the depth of the store, where they seem to lose their ability to understand what’s going on around them. Even when the film’s characters aren’t physically in the location, the store comes to them in the form of puzzling, hypnotising television ads in which Luckmore and the clerks perform a strange kind of dance beckoning you to come buy from them.
In Fabric is also charged with a deep erotic energy that contrasts rather sharply with the fact that Sheila’s sexual life is barely hanging on by a thread. In the moments where she’s in the store interacting with Miss Luckmore, Sheila can feel there’s something off about the way the clerk gently touches her and stares into her eyes, but what she doesn’t understand is the gravity of the spell Luckmore and the store are working on her.
Though Luckmore’s lines are often linguistically dense to the point of being incomprehensible, Mohamed’s delivery is sublime, especially in scenes where you’re clued into the disdain she actually has for many of the people who come into the store. There’s a subtle sadness to Jean-Baptiste’s performance that immediately makes you understand what kind of person Sheila is: Someone who’s lonely and tired of feeling like she doesn’t have anyone in her life that she can depend on. The dress makes Sheila feel like a stronger version of herself and you see that it’s bringing out a level of confidence that she hasn’t experienced in ages, but at the same time, the dress scares the hell out of her because she ends up seeing the thing floating around on its own.
In Fabric, which is from the same writer-director who made the eerie 2012 giallo riff Berberian Sound Studio, isn’t exactly the comedy that it’s being billed as, but there is a definite camp quality to the film because it’s about a dress that kills people. The film exists somewhere between Are You Being Served? and Suspiria, which is to say that it’s both silly and utterly bone-chilling while also being beautiful to watch. What’s less the stellar about the film is the way that its story begins to meander in its final act, which ends up making it feel longer than it actually is.
But as a whole In Fabric’s a success that will stick with you for days after you’ve seen it. It’s a gorgeous, batshit fever dream of a story, and it’ll make you think twice about impulse buys the next time they jump out at you.
In Fabric is in theatres December 6 in the United States. While an Australian date has yet to be released, you can assume it’ll be released in the following weeks.