The January sales are upon us, and in this Thames Valley department store business is booming with the local ladies all out for a bargain item of fashion now Christmas is over. One such lady is Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a single mother of a teenage boy whose husband left her not so long ago, but as she hears from her son that his father is now dating again, she feels the need to try and best him, so has applied to a matchmaking service in the newspaper from which she has been receiving a collection of letters. Not all of them are what you would call promising, but she does find one that sounds fine, though what she has to get now is something to wear, so off she trots to the sales...
Seemingly inspired by a viewing of the nineteen-forties Hollywood almost-classic Tales of Manhattan, where a coat was quasi-supernaturally passed between various characters to better tell their stories, In Fabric was as carefully designed as ever, as you would expect from writer and director Peter Strickland, be that the soundscape and music (from experimental composers Cavern of Anti-Matter) or Ari Wenger's handsomely styled cinematography, offering a queasily intimate appearance to the proceedings. For this was a horror movie at heart, and though split into two stories, it could have been regarded as up to four, depending on who had ended up wearing the bright red dress that has sinister qualities.
It does not possess the wearer or anything like that, though it does brand them with an angry rash that almost creates a particular pattern on the skin after it has been worn for any length of time, but it does invite dark forces to prey on them, though precisely what they were was purposefully left up to the audience to decide. While there may have been an abundance of grotesquerie, there was also a strain of black comedy running through many scenes, be that the pretentiously flowery language used by shop assistant Miss Luckmoore (the magnetically strange Fatma Mohamed) or such punchlines as a dream where the proud father envisages his bouncing newborn baby making a rude gesture.
All of this skirted dangerously close to weirdness for its own sake, not something you would say about Strickland's previous work, and there was in addition a slightly vindictive tone to the trials and tribulations the painfully ordinary folks undergo. If he was paying tribute to the Amicus portmanteau chillers of the sixties and seventies which overlap with the timescale here, then he did get the combination of the mundane being affected by the unreal and threatening just right (these were films where a killer piano could just as easily off you as Santa Claus might), yet there was usually a sense of very British tragedy about even the most American inspired yarns. That was here, though mostly owing to the sadness you felt that these victims would have to suffer so out of proportion to their ordinariness, which gave this a definite edge.
Having been familiar with the way the Amicus instalments went, we can pretty much tell that dress spells doom for the wearer even without the shots of it moving of its own accord or floating like a cartoon ghost, but there was more to this. Strickland and his performers looked to be amusing themselves with a structure that often gave way to sketchlike episodes, be that Sheila's bad date with a man deceptively named Adonis or more bizarre bits and pieces like the Zenlike effect descriptions of washing machine maintenance can have on a listener. There were too many instances of the uncanny to mention, and some overlapped into the surreally funny, but undercutting that was the sympathy you would feel for those under the influence of the scarlet garment, only amplified when there was not a lot else you could really grasp onto as far as the plots went. It did have a very accomplished cast, so it was never boring, but it did not have the same focus as before so as psychedelic as it grew (in a bad trip manner), the film failed to reach a clear point: its strength and its drawback.