Peter Strickland’s In Fabric: an unsettling horror full of sexual tension

The villain of Strickland's latest film is an unusual one: a spectral, floating red dress.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The mannequin is a unique cultural object. Beloved by the Surrealists for its uncanny ability to hover between human body and inanimate object, it has been frequently disassembled or redecorated by artists and filmmakers ever since. In cinema, the allure of the storefront is often imbued with a Pygmalion-like aura that brings its contents to life, as with Kim Cattrall’s iconic performance in the 1987 romcom Mannequin. Arthouse film has also repeatedly approached its form, producing compositions which highlight the mannequin’s ability to straddle life and lifelessness.

Peter Strickland’s In Fabric (2018) foregrounds these dualities in its department store setting. The film connects two main stories through an unusual shared villain: a spectral, floating red dress that divorcée named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) purchases to wear on a date. This department store, however, is strange. Its salespeople, a group of pale women lead by the elegant and frightening Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) all wield sharp, red fingernails and dress anachronistically in black, pseudo-Victorian hoop dresses. Their ‘manager’ (Richard Bremmer) looks similarly vampiric and watches over business with creepy excitement. Miss Luckmoore waxes poetic about the ability of this red dress to transform Sheila, who has started to date again. The dress is not in Sheila’s size but fits her perfectly, something that proves true for anybody who wears it. Sheila buys the dress and takes it home. As she wears it, the dress – which leaves strange rashes on the chests of its wearers – takes on a life of its own, slipping out of Sheila’s cupboard at night, fluttering through the house, and ending up in her son’s room. The dress grows increasingly bold and violent, bringing Sheila’s story to a climactic end midway through the film. Then, as if resetting the clocks, another eerie story begins.

As with The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland’s last film, In Fabric takes great liberties with narrative logic. The film teeters towards experimental: a tough ask for an audience sitting through a two hour feature. Our focus is anchored, however, by strong performances which ground In Fabric’s intoxicating weirdness. While its setting is not of this world, Marianne Jean-Baptiste realizes Sheila as if she is, convincing us to commit to an otherwise cryptic plot. Strickland’s films aren’t praised often enough for their humour, which works to curb any possible pretentiousness. Here, Jaygann Ayeh, Gwendoline Christie, Hayley Squires and Julian Barratt consistently land bizarro comedy. In lightening the tone, they deepen it.

In keeping with its spectral dress, In Fabric favours texture over story. Strickland presents a visually alluring world and encourages our indulgence in it. Repeated montages of grainy, blurred footage are used as a point of sensory interest. Like a good storefront display, cinematographer Ari Wegner’s frame is not overcrowded, centring a focal object or person with interest.

Horror functions less as a genre for Strickland to adhere to, but more as a prism, one that filters an unsettling atmosphere. Strickland’s inspirations span widely, far beyond his often-debt to giallo films that many have noticed. In Fabric recalls older films like as House of Wax or Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos, but also finds companionship in the twee demonic workshop of James Wan’s Insidious. Some of the best horror of recent years has also put red clothing in the spotlight, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Jordan Peele’s Us.

Like Strickland’s oeuvre writ large, In Fabric bathes in transgressive desire. There’s sexual tension between everyone, most emphatically in the competitive dynamic between Sheila and her son’s older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) who leaves lingerie on the floor and spends too long in the shower. Meanwhile, Sheila’s son Vince draws reverent pictures of vaginas and reads a book titled How To Flirt With Older Women. Characters are frequently touching one another and running their fingers along pieces of clothing. Miss Luckmoore leads an in-store sex ritual on a mannequin with pubic hair and bleeding genitals. Is Strickland saying something about Freudianism, fetishism, and desire? It’s certainly simmering under the surface, but intellectualizing In Fabric isn’t necessary to understand the conceptual thrust of the film: we have weird, eroticized relationships with everyday objects, especially clothing.

Some critics have read In Fabric as a fairly straightforward commentary on consumerism. It’s true that the film presents department stores and bureaucratized workplace as sites of vampiric violence. In Fabric is much more complex, though, because it presents the store as a place of significance in which a million intimacies are played out: secrets are shared, fantasies are formed, small interactions are magnified, and our vulnerabilities are tested. It’s a place that is both scary and beautiful—In Fabric negotiates this tension perfectly.