Movie Review: Wrap your consumerist nightmares “In Fabric”

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Here’s a devilish dose of macabre, masochistic guilt for everything you bought on Black Friday, and just in time for Christmas!

With “In Fabric,” horror auteur Peter Strickland (“The Duke of Burgundy,” “Berberian Sound Studio”) takes on consumerism, wage slavery and the global curse that is fashion, viewing them all through the prism of the lurid, kinky ’70s horror films of Dario Argento and his ilk.

It’s a tale of a dress possessed, giving everyone who wears it a rash. As if that’s not enough, this stylish 1970s “Ambassadorial Function Dress” has a mind of its own. If the rash and the dreams it provokes don’t drive the wearer mad, the damned thing will slide its metal hanger down the metal rack of your closet — screech screech — and try to suffocate you, or worse.

Returns? Even harder in Britain than they are in America. Especially when you’re dealing with a staff that just checked out of the Hotel Transylvania.

A dark comedy awash in style that creeps you out and pins the “ick” meter won’t be to every taste. Violence isn’t the half of it. Menstruation to masturbation, this one covers a lot of bases, none of them pleasant. But with each passing minute that “In Fabric” weaves its chillingly comic spell, it wraps the viewer in a shroud we can’t escape without tripping as we do.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste of “Secrets & Lies” and TV’s “Without a Trace” is Sheila, a newly-separated bank teller with only her rebellious teen painter son (Jaygann Ayeh) for company. She could do with a little companionship, and this being the age of landlines, rotary phones, answering machines and personal ads in the local weekly, she’s starting to date.

Montages of still photographs and bursts of retro TV ads for “The Sales” reinforce the idea that this is Britain in the ’70s, and that January — the big post-Christmas shopping frenzy — awaits. That’s when Sheila sets out to buy the dress.

The store she chooses is the most peculiar clothier this side of “Seinfeld’s” version of J. Peterman. And the Slavic-accented sales clerk (Fatma Mohamed) promises her “a panoply of temptation,” a dress that will flatter her and fill “the crevices of clarity” in her date’s mind.

Damn. That’s some sales pitch. Miss Luckmoore (Mohamed, a mainstay of Strickland’s films) is pale as death, dressed in black and given to the plummy locutions of an exotic Mistress of English as a Second Language.

“Your dressing room awaits…your dress to coalesce into a simple union of wonders!”

Thus begins Sheila’s dark night of the retail fashion soul — a rash, nightmares, a dress that literally does battle with her washing machine and might just smother the insufferable and insulting artist’s model (Gwendoline Christie) who has taken up with her son.

Better keep the receipt, honey.

Sheila’s battle with the scarlet dress — what to do about it, with it — is but the opening salvo of a war. Others will be helpless in its thrall. And with the perverse rituals Miss Luckmoore, her boss (Richard Bremmer) and staff perform on store manikins after hours, it’s no wonder. That dress is ready-to-wear Satanic possession.

The British emigree Strickland makes his home, if not his movies, in Budapest, Hungary. His obsession with Transylvanian Gothic reaches full flower with “In Fabric,” from its blood-red dress-of-death to the Daughters of Dracula sales staff in the women’s wear department at Dentley & Soper’s.

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He finds humor in sex scenes, with one or two partners. He scores his satiric points not just in caveat emptor, or let the covetous beware. Through Sheila’s two weirdo (gay, nosy and invasive) bank bosses (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) Strickland scores points on the rising imbalance in the employer/employee relationship.

Their clucking voices have a touch of passive aggression and threat, their eyes close in almost orgasmic delight at noting every imagined shortcoming, every psychological issue extrapolated from some idiotic invented transgression that they lay on Sheila in their best human resources-speak. An “insolent salutation” could be a black mark on her record.

Mohamed is the break-out in this fine cast, her deft way with the florid, Slavic-accented poetry of retail scripted by Strickland is a thing of rare beauty.

The score, by Cavern of Anti-Matter, smacks of electronic harpsichords swirling into power chords — a Walter Carlos before Wendy Carlos came to be evocation of the ’70s. The montages of still photographs — people shopping, street scenes, etc. — have a “Night of the Living Dead/Zapruder Film” tint.

“In Fabric” takes a while to settle in, and that goes for the viewing experience, too. It takes a few minutes for us to surf the wave Strickland wants us on, to get in sync with the vibe he’s going for.

But rare is the horror movie that finds off-the-rack laughs in everything from ’70s fashions and consumerism to ’70s British sex and slang, and does it with haute couture style.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including a scene of aberrant behavior, and some bloody images

Cast: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill, Julian Barratt and Steve Oram

Credits: Written and directed by Peter Strickland. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:58

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