Film Review | In Fabric: The Masque of the Red Dress

Rising star British filmmaker Peter Strickland returns just in time for Halloween with a wickedly funny and gorgeously designed horror caper about a ‘killer’ red dress

British writer-director Peter Strickland is certainly becoming a name to watch out for in the world cinema scene, even if his nightmarish exercises in dark excess could be construed too unsettling for some, and shallow exercises in formal play for others.

Still, there’s no denying that his two most recent films – the BDSM-tinged chamber drama Duke of Burgundy (2014) and the surreal maelstrom of psychological horror that was Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – left an arguably indelible mark, etching him into place as a distinctive film-maker with the power to disturb and entertain in equal measure.

Now, he returns somewhat to the Italian ‘giallo’ cinema influences that were such a key component of ‘Berberian’, with an amusingly cruel dark fairy-tale set in a near-but-remote past and lodged firmly in the world of British High Street shopping.

Put-upon bank clerk and recent divorcee Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to give dating a try in reaction to the news that her ex-husband has found “a new bird” – a fact unceremoniously announced by her son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), whose own girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) is low-key menaced on a daily basis in her own home, leading Sheila to refer to her as a “femme fatale”. But little does Sheila know that she’s about to encounter far more sinister femme fatales with real blood on their agenda. Stepping into the Dentley and Soper’s department store, she is met by a ludicrously loquacious sales assistant, Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), whose all-black demeanour and thick Romanian accent will signify to all and sundry audiences that something is seriously amiss here, but that only meets mild bemusement from Sheila and, indeed, the shop’s many customers.

But the weirdness becomes increasingly harder to ignore when a striking red dress bought by Sheila ahead of an ultimately disastrous date begins to wreak all sorts of havoc – a supernatural drive towards chaotic oblivion that ultimately even reels in a hapless washing machine repairman and would-be husband Reg (Leo Bill).

In Fabric opens with a striking credit sequence that could be experienced as both an embedded trailer for the film itself, and a communication of its ‘giallo’ bona fides, with music and bright Technicolour visuals that recall Dario Argento at his most influential, in what is yet another iteration of a series of rolling tributes to that iconic filmmakers legacy we’ve been seeing of late: from Luca Guadagnino’s direct (though very much free) remake of Argento’s Suspiria, as well as the Vanessa Paradis-starring queer remix of giallo touchstones, Knife + Heart.

But it is also a sequence that firmly establishes Strickland’s unabashed and unapologetic confidence about what lies ahead. In Fabric walks a wobbly tightrope between the striking and the ridiculous, between the horrific and the absurdly banal, and it’s to Strickland’s credit that he never allows himself to plunge into the abyss that very much lies below him. If the film has one problem, it is the clear resistance to any form of depth, playing out merely as a classier version of a vintage B-movie slasher from the ‘80s ‘video nasty’ pile.

One can complain of wasted potential: the aggressively absurdist streak of humour undercuts any attempts at interpreting this as a satirical anti-consumerist screed, almost making us feel silly for even trying. But the experience Strickland crafts can’t be denied: from the legitimately funny jokes down to the impeccable production and costume design lending both an arched and lived-in effect. Aided along by cinematographer Ari Wegner’s theatrically grainy lens-work, audiences will feel as though they’ve been transposed onto the stage of a Grand Guignol show after being maliciously misdirected on their way to the toilets. And it’ll hurt so good.

The verdict

Peter Strickland’s latest certainly showcases the director’s sensibility towards disturbingly-tinged humour, even if it’s little more than a dark confection in the long run with very little by way of substance. Still, it remains that very British variant of intellectually undemanding entertainment, with gorgeously bedecked, Argento-inspired set pieces and music and a recourse to cruel jokes keeping our attention riveted to the strange spectacle.

In Fabric will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, Valletta on October 31 at 7.30pm and November 2 at 8.30pm