“The hesitation in your voice … soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail.”
In trying to describe Berberian Sound Studio—which was the only Peter Strickland film I had seen prior to sitting down to watch this one—I said that I loved it, but still couldn’t tell you what happened in it. The same goes for In Fabric, pretty much.
I took seven pages of notes while watching In Fabric in the Screenland’s Theater 2, and I’m pretty sure I know that the film was about—on both a textual and subtextual level—but, in spite of that, I couldn’t tell you why in the hell most of what happened in it happened. Or, in some cases, what was even supposed to be happening at all.
One of the most striking things about Berberian Sound Studio was the soundscape that it created—which not only made sense there, but was, perhaps, a necessity for a film so obsessed with sound and sound design. In Fabric does the same thing, and while it may not be as thematically obligate, it is no less effective.
The film opens with total silence over the production company logos. The first sound we hear accompanies the first frames of the film—a switchblade snapping open to slice the tape on a box containing the red dress that is at the heart of the movie.
Here’s the thing, though. A story about a haunted (or cursed, it’s unclear) dress is the easy logline to sell the movie, but the film never treats the dress as an actor, not really. It’s more like a totem or a fetish—an item that evil (or whatever you want to call it) can move through, rather than the cause of all that evil itself.
Where does the evil come from, then? Maybe from the sinister “trusted department store,” Dentley & Soper’s, where the mannequin-like salespeople all speak in a weird, stilted version of customer service jargon—“I claim the dimension of remorse” is how the “hero” salesperson (Fatma Mohamed) says “I’m sorry.” Or maybe it’s something that’s in all of us, all along.
I said that I could tell you what In Fabric is about, both on the surface and underneath, and I think that’s true, more or less. On the surface, it’s about what it says on the tin—a mysterious red dress (the catalog calls the color “artery red”) that caused the death of the model who first wore it, and seems to bring misfortune and eventually death to everyone else it comes into contact with, albeit through extremely indirect means.
Underneath, it’s about consumerism and the ways in which we become complicit in our own exploitation, the sinister department store making literal witchcraft out of the bizarre rituals of our holiday shopping.
But that only goes so far toward explaining the events of this odd film. Why does the technician in the film’s second half cause people to go into orgasmic trances whenever he describes what’s wrong with a washing machine? You’ve got me.
Honestly, though, my biggest problem with In Fabric was not that it didn’t make a ton of sense. I’d seen Berberian Sound Studio. I knew what I was getting myself into. No, the biggest problem I had with the movie was that it is essentially two films.
I knew going in that the story followed the dress as it “passes from person to person, with devastating consequences,” to quote the IMDb synopsis. So I was expecting the dress to change hands multiple times. It doesn’t really, though. It goes first to Sheila Woodchapel (a really excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste), recently-divorced mom with an adult son, and from there to the aforementioned washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires).
That’s pretty much it, and aside from a few odd moments, there’s not really anything to connect the two besides the dress, which means that the film is split into two distinct halves. If the dress had passed around to multiple people, connected only by the sinister garment and the unusual department store, it would have felt like a loosely-linked anthology film. Had the two segments borne stronger connective tissue, it might have felt more like one continuous narrative.
In spite of wrapping up with a department store riot and a literal conflagration, the two-part structure makes it impossible for the movie to really build to anything. The beautifully purgatorial penultimate sequence helps to bring the film’s themes home, but by then it’s too little, too late.
These are the frustrations that keep me from connecting with In Fabric more fully than I did, but up at the top I said that I loved it, and that’s kind of true.
It’s a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing film, even when it’s not making any sense. The soundscape is wonderful, and there’s enough of a thematic hum running through it to keep me going when the main narrative doesn’t seem terribly interested in itself.
It has become common for indie and “prestige” horror films to draw inspiration from the Italian giallo genre, but Strickland seems to be one of the few people who is doing anything particularly interesting with it, even if I’m not entirely sure what that is. There are no stalking sequences here, no black-gloved killers. In their place are the holiday shopping season itself, and the petty invasions of privacy that are part-and-parcel to being working class.
IMDb lists the genres of In Fabric as “comedy, horror,” and there’s certainly more than a little pitch-dark satire in the film—not to mention uncomfortable laughs to be had when it just goes places that are bonkers and awkward. At times, though, its satirical claws are razor sharp and dead-on. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film capture the absurdity and hypocrisy of being called in to talk to the boss quite as perfectly as this one does.
Obsessions recur throughout. Some have obvious reverberations within the film’s themes. Others are more obtuse. Over and over again, characters are identified by number, rather than name. Phone numbers, PO Box numbers in the case of the lonelyhearts ads that Sheila places and answers, dress sizes.
In Fabric is the kind of picture that milks tension and even terror from a game of Sorry and a malfunctioning washing machine, and also the kind where you can see a newborn baby flip you the bird. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then, by all means, support this kind of idiosyncratic cinema on the big screen while you can.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.