Out of all the wide smiles in the Greek restaurant, the most ill-fitting belongs to Sheila Woodchapel. Behind that toothy grin, this middle-aged divorcee braces for her latest disheartening dating-service encounter. Tonight’s gent? Adonis. The name is ironic, not inspiring. He arrives with wilted flowers, furtive stares and conversational skills so incomprehensibly inept you’d think he only spoke his first words that morning. Adonis is mainly there for the free-dessert voucher, limited as it may be to one sad split order of pudding.
At least the pudding will make Adonis happy. Sheila’s entire existence feels entombed by desperation. At home, Sheila has yielded any authority over her son, Vince, to his girlfriend, Gwen. Overtaken bathrooms and outrageous bills speak loudly. The look Gwen shoots Sheila during a voracious oral-sex outing with Vince cuts glass. Work is no refuge, either. Sheila is a clerk at Wangel’s, a bank whose backrooms are festooned with worker-bee tripe about 19 Concepts of Transactioneering or the Wangel’s Wavelength, and whose mid-level managers push puerile pamphlets about proper handshakes. Sheila’s nametag read only “I’ll help you.” Wangel’s logo is a labyrinth; it doesn’t take close examination to presume there’s no way out.
Sheila tries to be everything to everyone but never feels comfortable as herself. This isn’t just exhausting her. It’s consuming her. And it’s on yet another wasted day that she saunters into the department store Dentley & Soper’s. They offer odd discounts (62%) during their “seasonal retail expulsion” (also known as a sale). Their logo resembles a Lovecraftian creature rising from primordial ooze. They send currency through pneumatic tubes. Signs guide shoppers to what they call the Transformation Sphere (more commonly known in the real world as a dressing room). Something is clearly … off about Dentley & Soper’s, and that’s before its floor workers unleash their erudite, mellifluous snake-charmer sales pitches like “Into apprehension slides crevices of clarity” or “Dimensions transcend the prisms of our measurements.”
That first line makes you chuckle at its goofiness. That second one makes you wince in recognition of its truth, no matter whether you’re fashion-forward or couture challenged. For is that not the underlying notion of all clothes marketing that bombards us in a catalog … or, as it’s known at Dentley & Soper’s, an “intimate document of finesse and joy”? You are so much more than what you wear … so just buy this and you’ll feel better about yourself, OK? It’s a folksy platitude meant to placate those perpetually waffling between sizes, pushing down pants tents, debating if we can suck it in enough, watching dresses dangle off our gangly bodies. Like Sheila, we’ve all been in the Transformation Sphere — surrounded by mirrors and found wanting at every angle.
But then Sheila tries on that red dress. Oh, man. That dress. You’ve probably put such clothing on yourself. It fits so perfectly, it feels like it’s spent years just waiting there for you. So perfectly that the salespeople start to sound like they know exactly what they’re talking about. In the real world, the salespeople feel like your friend. At Dentley & Soper’s, the salespeople say “Can a curious soul desist? The hesitancy in your voice is soon to be a distant echo in the sphere of retail.” Sheila needs this dress. Moreover, it seems to need her. After all, it’s a killer dress. As in a dress that floats in midair like a malicious Doctor Strange cape … before it kills people.
In Fabric — available on demand and screening in select theaters starting Dec. 6 — is a new symphony of synesthesia from writer-director Peter Strickland, who previously addressed an audible descent into madness for Berberian Sound Studio and the most tender BDSM romance you could imagine in The Duke of Burgundy. The composer for In Fabric’s score goes by Cavern of Anti-Matter. With a name like that, you know an overwhelming burble of discordant threnodies is in store. Indeed, the Dentley & Soper’s jingle — which accompanies advertisements that lull people into slack-jawed reverie — plays like the Saks Fifth Avenue version of the Silver Shamrock song from Halloween: Season of the Witch. Cacophony carries over into insidious sound design (like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon soundscapes on steroids) and color palettes of blistering reds, burning oranges, crushed blacks and blinding whites.
In Fabric is easily Strickland’s most supremely bizarre work but also his most surprisingly beguiling. Here, garden-variety consumer satire elevates into a rarefied air of exquisite laughter and explosive shock value … while also exploiting the basest pleasures of a movie about a dress that kills people. Strickland employs is the sort of oh-shit-what-next tactics you’d expect of a movie that includes credits for a curator of mannequin pubic hair (which prevails in a scene that will definitely be a point of no return for sexagenarians stumbling into this movie at U.S. arthouses come December).
But what’s most horrifying about In Fabric is its bone-deep understanding of just how lonely all of life’s everyday assignations and indignities can sometimes feel. Its recognition of commerce as a chasm into which we so often willfully hurtle ourselves to feel some sort of communion. After all, what is capitalism if not a continual sacrificial transaction — cash for happiness, comfort, appearance, status, vanity, leisure?
The stuff we buy connotes a constant devil’s bargain. It’s hardly a new idea in popular fiction. But it’s persuasively literalized here, and with a pulpy relish, by the Suspiria-esque coven / cult calling the shots from the bowels of Dentley & Soper’s. In Fabric opens on a shot of a Dentley & Soper’s box being cut open. Even though the film has just begun, an outpouring of blood would not surprise you. And characters’ constant small-talk about whether anyone found anything good in the sales feels like its own demonic incantation that holds us in thrall from womb to tomb.
In Fabric is also one of the most uproarious, laugh-out-loud horror movies in recent memory — borne largely on the balding pates and bulging midsections of Stash and Clive, Sheila’s doltish supervisors. Superficially, they are the Office Space Bobs transplanted into a tale of terror and offering brief respite. Subtextually, Stash and Clive serve as a street team for chaos the coven / cult wishes to foment, pushing Wangel’s customers deeper into bowels of servitude with shitty interest rates on loans they can’t help but feel compelled to take. This dimension of Stash and Clive also keeps In Fabric from losing course with its unexpected introduction of a washing-machine repairman (well after a sequence that brings new meaning to following clothing care instructions).
Better than any other satire of commerce, In Fabric’s concluding moments convey the horror of finding yourself in a cell of your own creation — defeated but docile. Strickland’s film certainly takes a visual page from kaleidoscopic Italian gialli films of yore. Only here, the gloved killer’s hands are our own and turned upon our own throats. But oh my, your hands look so lovely in them.