‘In Fabric’ Film Review: Say No to the Dress

Peter Strickland’s dazzling, strange, retro fashion horror story is a gory, absurdist delight

In Fabric

A hypnotic TV commercial for a local department store beckons — summons, really — shoppers for what amounts to a culturally mandatory annual winter sales event. It’s an ad that’s not unlike the ones for Silver Shamrock in “Halloween III: Season of The Witch,” and in “In Fabric,” it succeeds in the same way, bringing in unhappy bank employee Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to look for a first-date dress.

She finds the Ambassadorial Function Dress, color: Artery Red. It’s an alluring garment summed up in the store’s catalog with hyperbolic copy like “body sensual, captivating, candlelight glances, canapé conversations.” Not really Sheila’s size, it somehow fits her perfectly. And though she protests that she normally wouldn’t wear something so bold, the commandingly seductive saleswoman, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed, “Berberian Sound Studio”), doubles down: “Daring eclipses the dark circumference of caution.” There’s really no arguing with that.

Naturally, the dress is haunted. And not merely haunted, but murderous, indestructible and relentless. It destroys bodies, washing machines, cars, even fresh produce. But it fits like a dream, so inevitably its wearers are always eager to let the right one in.

“In Fabric” plays out in two parts. The story shifts gears from Sheila to the soon-to-be-married Reg (Leo Bill, “Peterloo”) when his friends pick up the discarded dress from a charity shop and make him wear it during his own bachelor party. His fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires, “I, Daniel Blake”) tries it on as well. Rashes ensue, discord follows, disaster looms.

And through it all the dress hovers in midair, mocking its victims, and seemingly controlled by Miss Luckmoore and a magnificently costumed staff (thanks to designer Jo Thompson, “Fleabag,” making everyone here look gloriously sinister) that amounts to a department-store coven with some very specific sorcery skills.

Filmmaker Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy”) fearlessly courts and slashes through silliness in the construction of a world that’s not only inhabited by murder-dresses but is also a banal dystopia of corporate control. Every aspect of existence involves an intrusion by employers, the state, schools, even near strangers.

It’s not enough that Sheila is tormented by the Ambassadorial Function Dress; she’s also given a warning at her job for not having a “meaningful handshake,” and another one for the insolence of daring to greet the manager’s mistress on the street. Reg’s bank loan approval has to be vetted by his former teacher. Permanent records are permanent, and the only pleasure is shopping.

Strickland and his cast play it (sort of) straight, aiming for the difficult target of horror-comedy. Comedy wins, but not without some truly gruesome set pieces that take a shrieking delight in the dress wreaking bloody havoc. The actors — the ones playing the unfashionable characters, anyway — are uniformly committed to the pathetic. They’re hapless, downtrodden, and delusional: easy victims for the voracious dress.

The film’s vaguely ’80s setting is bolstered by John Carpenter-esque scoring from Stereolab founder Tim Gane (composing here as Cavern of Anti-Matter), camerawork from cinematographer Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”) that emphasizes the dour, quotidian trudge of life when not gliding through the otherworldly, sinister brightness of the department store, all of it punctuated by a series of fuzzy VHS-quality interstitials that shred through fashion advertising like a pair of claws.

And the real point is clear every time Miss Luckmoore swoops in, speaking in circles about the “prism of retail abstraction.” Consumer dissatisfaction “goes against the nature of things,” a narrative echoed in films as disparate as “Clueless,” George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” David Byrne’s 1986 comedy “True Stories” (which is partially set in a mall and features a mid-film title card that announces, “Shopping is a feeling”), and most of all, Chantal Akerman’s 1986 shopping mall musical “Golden Eighties,” where an interconnected cast of lovelorn Belgian boutique employees do their best to sweep European historical trauma into the dustbin by singing and dancing in brightly colored casual separates.

In spite of an excessive, metaphor-bash of an ending — forgivable when everything else on screen is this frenziedly fun — “In Fabric” seduces like its bias-cut main character, then taunts you for your desire. In this ugly present, history is nothing, consumption is all there is left, and it’s going to eat you alive.