We’ve had plenty of films that explore the nightmare that is working in customer-facing service jobs, but none of them have rejected the ethos of ‘the customer is always right’ quite like In Fabric. At the dark heart of Peter Strickland’s bizarre horror-comedy sits Dentley & Soper, a department store in late 70s Reading that may as well be situated on a new circle of Hell, cursing every patron that darkens its doors. Their hottest product? A sentient blood-red dress that fits any size and seeks to murder its owner. It’s perhaps the oddest ever villain for a slasher flick, mixing the horrific and the banal into a heady and ever-so-slightly offputting cocktail.
Returned to the store after its first owner was mysteriously hit by a train, the dress is then purchased by Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a lonely and bored single mum who wants to spice up her drab blind dates. Soon, though, she’s breaking out into rashes and hearing strange noises coming from her wardrobe at night, not to mention the fact her washing machine tries to crush her when the dress is put on for a spin cycle. The horror and threat of the dress is undeniably goofy, especially when it slithers across the floor while quite obviously being pulled by someone out of frame, but Strickland still manages to craft some genuinely stressful set pieces with it.
More effectively unnerving than the dress is its place of origin. From hypnotic adverts to a Suspiria-like coven in its back rooms, Dentley & Soper is a frightening place to be. Its sales team, headed up by the mannequin-esque Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), is enigmatic and aggressive, speaking in arcane riddles, and the less said about the actual mannequins, hairy and prone to bleeding as they are, the better. In Fabric does, on occasion, push its deliberate wackiness too far, but it creates a world unlike anything you’ve seen, mixing glum British kitchen-sink tropes with wildly surreal Euro-slasher aesthetics.
As is to now be expected of Strickland, the sound design is phenomenal, a constant ambient buzz of uncanny noise keeping you on your guard throughout without ever becoming overbearing. Mixed with the score by Cavern Of Anti-Matter, both pulsating and ethereal, it contributes to a chilling atmosphere of dread, even if the horror itself is often more strange than outright scary. Jean-Baptiste is fantastic as Sheila, slowly unravelling as the dress becomes more and more openly hostile, and a supporting cast with similar Loach/Leigh social-realist backgrounds lend a soft but powerful gravitas to proceedings.
Things do slow down once the dress changes hands, with the third owner Babs’s (Hayley Squires) story taking a while to get going (given how mad the premise is, In Fabric never really goes hell-for-leather like it could). The expansion of Strickland’s unique world is welcome, though, and there are some sublime touches, like a washing machine repair company whose workmen all have hypnotic powers, and a pair of bank managers who seem to have a sideline in dream analysis. Played by Steve Oram and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt, this duo is hilarious, rattling off amusingly eerie one-liners and playing off each other brilliantly.
In Fabric is very, very funny when it wants to be, sometimes through its arch and campy grisliness, but often just thanks to silly gags, like a newborn baby flipping off its dad or Sheila’s son’s girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) owning underwear with her beau’s face plastered all over it. After The Duke of Burgundy’s more eyebrow-raising humour, In Fabric gives you proper laughs, keeping the comedy side of horror-comedy ticking along very nicely. Despite all the giallo influences, it’s this rich vein of Boosh/Toast of London-style silliness mixing with blood and dark magic that makes In Fabric so memorable and uniquely British.