The other week I read a tweet that humorously suggested Batman and Daredevil would do well to swap their names. A similar thought went through my mind after seeing Peter Strickland’s In Fabric and wondering if it shouldn’t do the same with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017).
Strickland’s films tend to be tactile affairs, you can feel the world you’re being presented with, even if that world is a hyper stylised pseudo 1970s dark fantasy land. But In Fabric feels like Strickland is trying to break into the ‘real’ world. His earlier film Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is claustrophobic and contained, his last film Duke of Burgundy (2014) takes place in its own magical (male free) realm. Here however we have stories involving characters played by Marianne Jean Baptiste and Hayley Squires, probably best known for their work with Mike Leigh and Ben Wheatley. Wheatley is an exec on this film and his black comedy influence is felt. Whatever else I expected from this film, I didn’t think I’d laugh out loud.
The heart of this piece however remains pure Strickland, a postmodern giallo film critiquing hyper consumerism in the form of a haunted dress that brings destruction and misfortune on those that wear it. Virtually all imagery is stylised beyond reasonable endurance, and at the centre of the horror of the piece is a grotesquely realised department store that draws people to it via hypnotic TV ads that bring to mind the climax of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). The department store, ‘Dentley & Soper’s’ is populated by sales staff dressed as Victorian gothic mourners who speak in pure Pseuds’ Corner bullshit (primarily Miss Luckmoore played by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed). They also seem to be interchangeable with the store mannequins, on whom they perform absurdly sexualised maintenance. Dentley & Soper’s exists both as a comic throwback to department store shopping that only people older than most of the film’s audience will remember, and as a touchstone for all that’s vacuous and callow about consumer marketing. You get the impression Mark Fisher would have much to say about this film, and the en vogue hauntology (too often bound up with the term ‘folk horror’, is not all horror folk horror?) and lost futures that Fisher wrote about are much in evidence here.
For the first half of the narrative we follow Sheila (Marianne Jean Baptiste), a divorced single mother, and her attempts to find love via a phone based dating service, with lots of lingering shots of analogue answering machines shown in fetishistic detail (if you’ve seen Berberian Sound Studio then you’ll know what to expect). This proves to be both the film’s greatest strength and biggest flaw. The film (and viewer) become so obsessed with the distorted and stylised imagery that the character based narrative becomes almost a distraction. In previous Strickland films this was less of a problem because their characters were (forgive me) cut from the same cloth as the film’s style (with the exception of Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio but he was deliberately presented as the outsider) yet here, with characters drawn from more socially real (and let’s face it, working class) sources, In Fabric struggles with the balance of presenting a world populated by characters that don’t feel as if they belong there.
The abrupt end of Sheila’s story (just after half way through the film) also jars the viewer, and it takes precious time to connect with the new story of a washing machine repair man, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) about to enter an unhappy marriage (compare this to Sheila recently leaving one) with Babs (Hayley Squires) and the role the dress will play in their fate.
But if the film isn’t sure what it wants to say about the characters whose lives we follow, it has plenty of comment about what drives the impulse to shop. Every day at Dentley & Soper’s begins with a baying crowd-cum-lynch mob, desperate to enter the store and shop til they drop, willingly destroying themselves in their drive to be something other than what they are. The aforementioned TV adverts are little more than repetitive imagery and sound that leaves little ambiguity as to the point the film is making about advertising and consumerism. The ultra-violence of the film’s climax is not a surprise nor is the fact we see the dress’s victims slaving over sewing machines, sweat shop style as Miss Luckmoore escapes in a dumb waiter, descending to, well who knows where but the hellish undertones are hard to ignore.
It’s in Strickland’s use of the haunted dress that other, more orthodox horror influences come into play. Possessed fabric brings to mind MR James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad, as does the ominous message sewn into the dress’s hem, “You who wear me will know me”. The shots of the dress floating over Shelia’s bed are rather silly but Strickland just about gets away with it by playing it so straight that it suggests nothing here should be taken too seriously. Indeed far more of this film is played for laughs than I expected. Comic relief characters are introduced in the form of corporate passive aggressive pen pushers Clive and Stash (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt), and Babs’ just plain aggressive dad, subtly credited as Bananas Brian (Terry Bird). Nevertheless these don’t do much to dispel the criticism of a lack of decent characterisation.
Like all good horror In Fabric leaves much unanswered because that would diminish both its style and the otherworldly horror of the all-pervading power of capitalism. It’s notable that the film screened at this year’s London Film Festival with Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria (2018). Aficionados of Dario Argento’s 1977 original will arguably find more common ground here. I was only mildly disappointed there was no changing room (sorry, Transformation Sphere) full of razor wire.