It lies within the power of certain scary movies to blur the line where horror ends and hilarity begins. Should you gasp or giggle, laugh or scream? These reactions have never been mutually exclusive, and they can even be said to go hand in hand: A well-timed shock can leave you cowering and then chuckling in your seat, as frissons of terror subside into waves of pleasure and relief.
“In Fabric” and “Little Joe,” two grimly funny British freakouts arriving in U.S. theaters this week, push this dialectic to weird, fascinating extremes. Neither picture can be called scary in the conventional sense, and both are openly, unapologetically derivative in ways that may seem silly as well as sinister. The cheesiness is part of the fun, right down to the notion that, in each movie, the antagonist is an everyday object with a frightening life of its own: a red dress that bodes ill for anyone who wears it in “In Fabric” and a red flower with mood-altering properties in “Little Joe.”
Both films, for their part, will produce their own strange and highly varied effects on the audience. “In Fabric” is the latest blissfully deranged B-movie homage from the British-born writer-director Peter Strickland, who over the past several years has become a witty and imaginative fetishist of various strains of exploitation cinema. His elaborate homages to the B- and C-grade entertainments of yesteryear go beyond simple mimicry or mockery into a kind of cracked celebratory pastiche. His “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) was a loving tribute to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, and he followed it with “The Duke of Burgundy” (2015), a lesbian romance that draped its powerful, unsettling emotions in the lusciously overripe style of 1960s European softcore.
“In Fabric” neither achieves nor aims for a similar level of emotional depth. It’s invested entirely in the creepy-comic possibilities of its bizarre B-movie premise, and that’s more than enough. In a small town sometime during the 1990s, a divorced bank teller named Sheila (an excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste) scans the personal ads while trying to put up with her teenage son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), and his impudent girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie, “Game of Thrones”), who misses no opportunity to make Sheila feel like an intruder in her own home.
Shortly before going on a date, Sheila, taking advantage of the busy January sales season, stops by Dentley & Soper’s department store. There, she is attended to by Miss Luckmoore (the fabulous Fatma Mohamed), a store clerk who greets every customer with bizarre aphorisms as thickly accented as they are hilariously phrased. “The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail,” she murmurs shortly before persuading Sheila to buy a silky scarlet dress — not exactly her style, to be sure, but perhaps the right choice for exactly that reason.
A red dress, of course, has long been one of the cinema’s most vivid signifiers of desire — and danger. And in case you doubt that this particular outfit has less-than-benevolent designs on anyone who wears it, the moment when Sheila discovers a nasty rash on her chest, or sees the dress levitating of its own accord, should quickly disabuse you.
By the time Strickland gets around to showing us the nocturnal activities at Dentley & Soper’s, where Miss Luckmoore and her fellow clerks remove their wigs like Roald Dahl witches and have their way with a menstruating mannequin, “In Fabric” has basically morphed into an off-the-rack “Suspiria,” complete with a feverishly pulsing Cavern of Anti-Matter score and a densely layered soundtrack in which every effect — the rumble of a washing machine gone berserk, the snip-snip of a pair of scissors — registers with ominous force.
The movie loses some steam once the perspective shifts from Sheila to a washing-machine repairman, Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires), whose own encounters with the dress lead to further mayhem. But “In Fabric” adds up to more than the sum of its violently outré flourishes. If the Dentley & Soper’s shenanigans amount to a fairly blatant anti-consumerist subtext, then a hilarious recurring bit with two human-resources micro-managers (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) suggests a full-blown satire of working-class discontent. “In Fabric” unfolds in a twilight zone where capitalism is a kind of dark magic, people become slaves to shopping, and the language of corporate-speak casts its own cultish spell.
That world might just be a satirical stone’s throw away from the plant-breeding laboratory where much of “Little Joe” takes place. But as directed with chilly control by the gifted Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner (who wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard), this austere riff on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” sits at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum from Strickland’s lurid pastiche. This is a quietly insinuating picture with, by my estimation, one good jump scare, a lot of queasy chuckles and an overall atmosphere of slow, creeping, heavily perfumed rot.
Alice Woodard (an excellent Emily Beecham), a scientist, has devised a genetically modified hothouse flower that, when properly nurtured, emits a scent that induces a state of euphoria in anyone who inhales it. For commercial reasons (she’s trying to protect her poppyright), she has rendered the plant sterile, which turns out to have been a serious mistake: Denied the ability to procreate, the plant has become demonically bent on its own survival at any cost. Get within sniffing range and it won’t just make you a happy camper; it will turn you into its own personal bodyguard.
The flower is stunning to behold, with a crown of bright red blossoms that look as lethally poised as a Venus flytrap. Alice, a single mom, has named the specimen “Little Joe” after her adolescent son, Joe (Kit Connor), whom she loves but has little time for thanks to her chronic workaholism. And when she gives Joe his own potted Little Joe to look after, it isn’t long before he has fallen under the plant’s sway, along with several of Alice’s fellow lab workers (played by actors including Ben Whishaw and Kerry Fox).
I apologize for my mouthfuls of exposition, but consider it my attempt to approximate the deliberately flat, explanatory tone of Hausner and Bajard’s script, which takes a generic science-fiction premise and proceeds to spell out every twist and turn in dialogue. Somewhat perversely, they even give Alice a therapist (Lindsay Duncan) to serve as a sounding board for new plot developments, and also perhaps to underscore a fairly obvious point: namely, that these malevolent blooms are basically a thinly disguised metaphor for antidepressants. They’re uppers in botanical drag.
That’s a troubling conceit, to be sure. But “Little Joe,” blunt and obvious as it may seem on the surface, is full of rich and slippery implication underneath. Hausner doesn’t go the conventional route of treating Little Joe like an unambiguous villain, the kind of boogey-plant that can be vanquished with a third-act greenhouse fire or the like. In fact, it may be just the most explicit symptom of a general malaise that has long held Alice and the society she inhabits in its grip.
From the beginning, the movie’s atmosphere feels weirdly zombified; with one tightly wound exception, everyone here speaks in even-keeled pleasantries. Martin Gschlacht’s camerawork, with its slow lateral pans, seems to be conducting its own surveillance, turning the lab into its own human petri dish. Katharina Wöppermann’s immaculately color-coded production design, each room and office accented by a different shimmering hue, seems to mock the characters, emoting with a boldness they cannot muster. The eccentric score by Teiji Ito and Markus Binder, dominated by wind instruments and bursts of percussion, adds to the growing sense of alienation.
Hausner’s picture grows organically out of her fine earlier work, especially the masterful “Lourdes,” a rigorously deadpan comedy of manners about divine healing, the power of suggestion and the human susceptibility to groupthink. The strange, subversive achievement of “Little Joe” is that it leaves you wondering if there might be worse horrors than said groupthink: A world where everyone is in thrall to a monomaniacal plant might, after all, be a better place. It’s the movie’s scariest suggestion — and also, of course, its funniest.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown Los Angeles and the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles