When director Peter Strickland wrote “In Fabric,” a fever dream about a bewitching department store and a haunted red dress, it wasn’t intended to be a critique of consumer culture. He simply wanted to illustrate what he calls a “retail nightmare.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a critique,” the English director said by phone in advance of the film’s U.S. release. “I would call it a satire, perhaps. There is this backdrop of consumerism but I always felt uncomfortable having this didactic approach. We’re all a part of that system.”
The film, in select theaters now and on demand Tuesday, stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill and Hayley Squires as the unlucky owners of an “artery"-colored dress that stalks its wearers with an unstoppable evil.
Strickland says it was inspired partly by his experience being dragged into clothing stores as a kid and partly by the ineffable mystique of secondhand stores.
“You imagine the passing of clothing going from one person to another, especially through these shops and death and so on,” he said. “Buying clothing that often comes stained and with body odors can be very disorienting because you don’t know who had it before you. You can’t picture them but you can smell them, which is the most intimate sense. It just activates the imagination.
“BO basically brought this [film] into life,” he added with a laugh. “I wanted to show how people can have a very visceral reaction to clothing, whether they’re turned on by it, disgusted by it or haunted by it. I didn’t want to make a fashion film or an anti-consumerist film. It’s more exploring ideas about our response to clothing.”
An anthology of sorts, the film stars Jean-Baptiste as Sheila, a recent divorcée who turns to retail therapy after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. After being up-sold a flattering and nefarious dress by an enchanting saleswoman (played by Strickland’s frequent collaborator Fatma Mohamed), she comes to discover it is cursed.
“When I wrote it, I didn’t have a clue who was going to play Sheila,” said Strickland. “The only person I knew would be in it was Fatma because I always work with her. I [just] knew I wanted a British woman in her 50s. I admit I was not so familiar with [Jean-Baptiste’s] work so I went out and bought some DVDs. I thought she was wonderful, a really instinctive [actor].”
Jean-Baptiste, Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh’s 1996 drama “Secrets & Lies” and a fan of Strickland’s 2012 thriller “Berberian Sound Studio,” jumped at the chance to work with the director. “Peter is very collaborative, but he knows what he wants,” she said. “He’s very clear about certain things so it’s a really interesting dynamic. There were certain things where you’re just like, ‘OK, I’m not going to be able to do this, I don’t see what he’s seeing.’ Then you go along with it and it pays off.”
Though the film explores the experiences of multiple owners of the dress, Jean-Baptiste’s character serves as the heart of the story and the audience surrogate.
“I think the reason I spent so much time with [Sheila] is that hopefully, when you’re watching it, you [can empathize with her],” Strickland said. “Of course you’d go buy something nice to wear if your husband left you, your bank [employers] are giving you hell and your son’s girlfriend is a pain. I don’t see the dress as some kind of avenging angel. There’s no judgment there and it’s scarier when there’s no judgment. It’s more like a nightmare.”
“Game of Thrones” alum Gwendoline Christie also appears in the film as Gwen, the girlfriend of Sheila’s son and her frequent tormentor.
“She’s a very malicious character who is obsessed with modeling,” said Christie, who played the heroic Brienne of Tarth in the HBO series. “And because I think self-reference is entertaining in work, I thought it’d be hilarious for me to play that part. It felt like I would be given the opportunity for transformation and to further subvert realities of who I thought I was ... and the sorts of characters that I could play.”
Jumping from a character sarcastically referred to as Brienne the Beauty to the glamorous and seductive Gwen was an exciting challenge, the actress said.
“Before the character Brienne of Tarth I’d never played a character like [her] so it made sense to me to carry on playing characters that are vastly different from each other,” she said. “I’ve always been really thrilled by the fact that so many people have told me they haven’t recognized me in the film. I feel that that means I’m doing my job decently.”
One store in particular informed Strickland’s attitude toward department stores: the now -shuttered Jacksons in Reading, England.
“It was an old department store, which I always found fascinating,” he said, describing it as “theatrical and flamboyant” but also sinister. “There were these strange mannequins. I guess subconsciously it was always there in my mind.”
“I think there’s a certain generation that remembers department stores and maybe being taken in there with parents,” said Christie. “It seemed to be a box of delights, another dimension and a world offering up different sorts of experiences. It could be promoted to you in strangely seductive ways.”
“Almost like a school exercise, I wondered what if you took [horror writer] M.R. James’ sensibility and transformed it into a very prosaic setting, somewhere you wouldn’t imagine a ghost story,” said Strickland. “Like the high street.”
Strickland asked costume designer Jo Thompson to design a sultry but malevolent-looking dress that could also be universally flattering to a range of body types. What resulted was a simple, red wrap dress rendered in a lightweight silk.
“I think a wrap dress has a bit of sensuality about it,” Thompson said. “I wanted to create something that was sort of dreamlike and nonspecific. It had to fit a man, about five different women and also mannequins. It was adjustable and flows very beautifully and also it cuts across different periods like the ’50s and the ’70s. We wanted it to seem that the dress had somehow been around for a long time and probably threatened people throughout the ages.”
To accommodate the range of bodies that would wear the dress, Thompson made seven duplicates in different sizes, including a shrunken baby-sized one. “On a low-budget film, that was quite a big ask to try and get seven dresses made with very expensive fabric,” she said.
The film is equal parts creepy and funny, veering from Gothic horror one moment to dry workplace comedy the next. Strickland said the approach is just an extension of his own way of dealing with serious topics.
“I guess I’ve always been inclined to use humor,” he said. “It’s just me as a person. Like with Brexit, I’m really going to suffer from Brexit so I joke about it a lot because it’s the only way I can deal with it.”
For Jean-Baptiste, intercutting horror with humor is a way of getting the audience to let down its guard. “You need the relief of laughing in a horror movie,” she said. “Then bam, they hit you with [another scare]. [Both humor and horror] are quite hysterical, aren’t they?”
“In classical work, if you’re working on tragedy then you work to find the moments of humor,” Christie said. “And if you’re working on comedy, you look for the opposite. I think that’s what gives depth and humanity to the experience. Otherwise things could become one-dimensional. I think if you’re watching a horror film, the moments of horror become accentuated when they’re balanced with levity.”