Untold Horror’s Dave Alexander is covering various films showing at TIFF for Biff Bam Pop!
Dolls, books, boxes, amulets, masks, mirrors and various other trinkets have menaced many a horror movie protagonist. Cursed objects are such a staple of horror movies that the very tongue-in-cheek The Cabin in the Woods gave us an entire basement chock full of ’em.
So an evil dress? Why not?
That said, In Fabric wouldn’t be playing Midnight Madness at TIFF if was just another tale of some unfortunate soul happening upon a cursed object at an antique shop, in a dead relative’s closet or beneath a spooky old cabin. No, this is a Peter Strickland film, so expect the unexpected. For starters, the world of the movie overshadows the plot. If you’ve seen his last two features, The Duke of Burgundy (2016) and Berberian Sound Studio (2014), you know he’s truly obsessed with the sounds, sights and textures of the 1970s, the roles that women are often forced to play, particularly when it comes to sexuality; and manipulating the boundaries between fantasy and reality. In Fabric takes these cinematic obsessions to hysterical heights in his strangest and most captivating work to date.
The story begins with a single mom named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who’s post-divorce life consists mainly of raising a teenage son, being comically micromanaged at her bank job and using a dating service to find the next man of her dreams. The quest to look good leads her to the weirdest department store ever conceived. Run by a leering, Nosferatu-like man, it’s staffed by witchy women in Victorian mourning dresses who speak with a creepy, archaic cadence while hungrily running their blood-red fingernails over fabric. Their leader, played by the wonderfully unsettling Fatma Mohamed, sells Sheila a striking red dress that just happens to fit her perfectly. Too bad the outfit leaves a strange scar on her chest, literally destroys a washing machine when she tries to clean it, and results in her being attacked by a dog. The high cost of fashion, amirite?
The fact that Sheila isn’t particularly concerned by all this is played for intentional laughs. Strickland knows exactly how over-the-top everything is and delights in spiralling his audience into the madness, like that kid on the playground who won’t stop spinning the merry-go-’round until everyone is dizzy. The delirium only builds as we’re taken behind the scenes of the store, into the world of what we assume is a retail coven – one that finds sexual ecstasy in mannequins.
Strickland’s truly unique atmosphere is obviously cast in the fires of macabre Eurosleaze – from the hallucinatory visuals to the pounding synth on the soundtrack. The director simultaneously celebrates and takes the piss out of the highly-sexualized femme fatale worlds of Dario Argento, Jess Franco and Radley Metzger, all the while soaking up their analog delights with a vital self-awareness.
The downside: it’s asking a lot of an audience to be in that world for nearly two hours. In Fabric overstays its welcome a bit, particularly when the narrative takes a turn about two-thirds of the way through and introduces a new set of characters who become embroiled in the garment’s curse. It’s a problem that could easily be fixed by a tighter edit – bring up the hemline, so to speak…
That aside, Strickland has created a deliriously lavish work that’s certainly a highlight of his growing collection.