Peter Strickland’s comedy-horror In Fabric is memorably disturbing, funny and outright bonkers, like Mike Leigh on LSD. This tale of a killer red dress haunting a fictitious 90s English town (Thames Valley-on-Thames) is strong on style, atmosphere and music, and further confirms Strickland as one of our most exciting writer-directors. Like some of the film’s characters, we are often hypnotised by the audio-visuals and made more sensitive to the weirdness that follows. In Fabric has echoes of other films and TV shows, but Strickland weaves his ideas and influences into a cinematic tapestry that is uniquely his own.
When bank clerk Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, star of Leigh’s Secrets and Lies) buys a red dress at Dentley & Soper department store she gets more than she bargained for. Sheila has a put an ad in the lonely-hearts column of the local paper, which ends with “Laughter needed.” Life at home with teenaged son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and his “disgusting” girlfriend (an unrecognisable Gwendolyn Christie) is not much fun.
Sheila hopes that the dress and a new hairdo will impress the man who answered her ad. But the omens are not good. “What have you done to your hair?” asks Vince. “Looks like the council cut it.” In a scene that Mike Leigh would have been proud of, Sheila’s romantic date in a Greek restaurant is a dog’s dinner: ‘Adonis’ turns out to be rude and miserable. “What makes you laugh?” she asks him (his ad had said: ‘loves laughing’). “Funny things,” he replies, unsmilingly.
By the time Sheila finds a good man (Barry Adamson) she is increasingly disturbed by her red dress. It gives her a strange rash. At night, it shrieks from her wardrobe as if it is trying to escape its metallic clothes rail. It seems to move around the house when she’s not there. When she puts it in the washing machine it goes haywire. Even when unplugged the machine throbs and grinds violently and seems to attack Sheila.
The second part of the film follows the red dress into the life of a new owner, “solid average” washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill). He is similarly terrorised by it and cannot understand the mechanics of what it does to his own washing machine. In a couple of hilarious scenes, Reg explains precisely what is needed to fix it in torpor-inducing detail: “the plungers on the doors don’t align with the seal … the lid-switch and its actuator.” Anyone who has been on the end of plumber-speak will nod off in sympathy. Two other characters in the film seem to like being sent into a trance by Reg and ask him to recite his incantatory bollocks so they can get off on it.
Although In Fabric is set in the 1990s it has a retro feel: its’ collages of fashion catalogues and still photographs are straight from the 1970s. It features a disturbingly ugly mannequin that put me in mind of the Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who story, Spearhead from Space (1970) which featured chilling shop window dummies that come to life.
Conscious or not, there are echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Halloween III (Season of the Witch), David Lynch and, stylistically, the Euro exploitation films (giallo) that Strickland is so fond of. After Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014), which he has admitted were “steeped in genre tropes,” In Fabric is an attempt to make something more original.
Like those films it has a mesmerising soundtrack (Cavern of Anti-Matter) and heightened, sensual sounds that are intended to evoke in the listener an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Strickland has said “for me, it’s a response to certain tactile sounds – whispering, page-turning, pencil on paper … I had it since childhood without questioning what it was … I just assumed everyone enjoys those sounds.” On YouTube there is a whole world of ASMR artists who create tingle-inducing sounds.