In Fabric

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/25/19 09:44:49

"An entertaining entry from one of cinema's more notable eccentrics."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: I had not realized that the new Peter Strickland movie was produced by Ben Wheatley's Rook Films, but, wow, is "In Fabric" ever that movie. It's as eccentric and fetishistic as the rest of Strickland's work, but also as bizarrely funny as the best of the producers' material, and probably more accessible for all that than many of its predecessors. The movie may still be something of an acquired taste, but it's weird more than outright baffling.

It is, after all, a movie about a demonic/possessed/otherwise more than peculiar dress, one initially purchased by middle-aged divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), looking to dip her toe back into the dating pool. She bought it from a sinister saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed) during Bentley & Soper's Boxing Day sale, and while there is initially little out of the ordinary, strange things start happening soon enough, particularly when Sheila's snotty model girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) tries it on, let alone others.

More happens later; In Fabric is a bit of a relay-race horror movie, where the cursed object will be on the move rather than tormenting the same people past the bounds of credulity. I suspect that many will find the good stuff to be in that first leg, and in no small part because Marianne Jean-Baptiste is so terrific to watch in what certainly seems like her biggest role since Secrets & Lies (with a lot of time playing New York-accented detectives in between). When you ask yourself who would be the logical protagonist for a movie about a killer dress, a vain beauty like Gwendoline Christie's model might come to mind, but Jean-Baptiste's Sheila is a lot more interesting to watch; she's got a sensible vibe but could maybe use a confidence boost, just the sort of person who would be most vulnerable but also potentially be able to figure out what's going on. She's a stabilizing influence that keeps the strange at bay and also makes it seem more sinister for intruding upon this working-class mother.

Other parts of the movie sometimes feel like Strickland trying to figure out what else you can do with an evil dress and not necessarily shying away from how, outside the specific environment he created for the main story, it can seem kind of silly. Those side-stories don't exactly diminish the sinister nature of what's happening - there's horror to be found regardless - but Strickland doesn't shy away from the absurdity of it, even as people are meeting nasty ends. In some ways, these eccentric asides solidify In Fabric as a bit more of a conventional horror movie than Berberian Sound Studio was, maybe not so unnerving as that or The Duke of Burgundy because the reason to be on edge is more clearly external rather than somewhere on the border of oneself and the outside world.

Not that it's really that conventional, of course - those previous movies by Peter Strickland worked in large part by plunging the viewer into constrained but obsessively detailed settings, the sort that inevitably start closing in, and there's some of that here, as Sheila rotates between her cramped apartment, the bank where she works, dates at the same restaurant, and the shop. That's a heck of a place on its own, at first glance seeming like a British cousin to the department store in Carol in its bright, detailed depiction of service-oriented mid-century retail, but it gets more sinister as Sheila gets pulled further in, with strange salespeople, management in hidden offices, and pneumatic tubes that hint at the presence of some dark, unseen force. Maybe that's a bit melodramatic, but maybe not; something about this dress comes from somewhere beyond, and Strickland has fun, when characters are asleep or otherwise not looking, staging trippy in-camera bits to present this common thing as an otherworldly threat.

It's absurd, of course, but played so deadpan straight that it either goes from being a joke to being genuinely creepy or shows that spooky things are built around a ridiculous core doesn't automatically make them easy to dismiss. Tying that to Marianne Jean-Baptiste's easily relatable Sheila makes this the first film from Strickland that I'd recommend to non-art-house moviegoers even though I've liked his previous work quite a bit, and even though it's still as eccentric as anything else his producing partners have come up with.

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