Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, Hayley Squires, Julian Barratt, Steve Oram, Sidse Babett Knudsen
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…a beautifully realised film that engages with the true potentials of contemporary cinema.
Peter Strickland’s In Fabric tells the story of a mysterious, red dress and the people who come into contact with the haunted garment. The film opens with middle-aged single mother Sheila (a standout performance from Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who buys the dress from Dentley and Soper’s department store for a date. Later, the dress falls into the possession of washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires).
Divided into two parts, the film could be seen as paying homage to the classic British portmanteau horror film, but the links established between the two sections create a larger narrative that focuses on the object of the dress rather than the human protagonists.
Set in the mythical town of Thames Valley-On-Thames during the 1993 January sales, In Fabric creates a seamless, deeply uncanny sense of time and location. This is a strangely-familiar suburban world of clunky answerphones, clothing catalogues, and lonely-hearts columns. But it is also a world of pneumatic tubes that transport cash and receipts through the depths of the department store and strange sales assistants who wear Victorian mourning dress. In Fabric creates a haunted and haunting world that resonates with a misremembered recent past (did shop assistants really clap-in the customers into the sales in 1993?).
This sense of memory flows throughout the film, some scenes play like half-recalled childhood trips to the shops – such as when Reg stares at stockings on the legs of mannequins and the film cuts to what appears to be the figure of a boy being served by a salesperson in a skirt split-high on the thigh, revealing black stockings. Look again, however, and the salesperson seems to be dressing a showroom dummy. The department store location and themes enable Strickland to explore the relationship between the human and the mannequin, creating some genuinely unsettling moments that are located in surrealism as much as horror. The high street has never felt so uncanny. The dream logic of the surreal is emphasised by Cavern of Anti-Matter’s (Tim Ganes of Stereolab) score, which detours already haunted melodies into drones and strange echoes of sound, creating an audio undertow to the narrative.
But Strickland is not just a stylist, his script and direction has a real empathy for the human condition, best exemplified by Shelia’s lonely struggles as a single parent. There is a strong sense of character developed through the film, as protagonists come into contact with the dress and it slowly, invariably effects their lives. There are also moments of laughter in the occasionally darkly comic exchanges that transpire between the pair of managers at Waingel’s Bank, whose attention to personal detail becomes almost claustrophobic. Similarly, oblique humour emerges from the sales assistants at Dentley and Soper’s, who talk to customers with an archaic precision that underpins a unique articulation of the experience of shopping.
Like Strickland’s previous works, In Fabric is a beautifully realised film that engages with the true potentials of contemporary cinema.