Film Fest 919: Fashion can be deadly. Look no further than the comedically tinged horror outing “In Fabric,” which literally centers around a killer dress. Positioning itself as the cross section of genre and weird independent cinema at Film Fest 919, it’s a bold shot at doing a scary story in a wholly new manner. There are a lot of swings for the fences here, and while there are a fair amount of pitches missed, enough contact is made to put some runs on the board. Adventurous genre fans only really need apply here, but lucky them, as this is an A24 title, so it’ll come their way before the year is out.
“In Fabric” plays by its own rules. Writer/director Peter Strickland takes an item you rarely think of as horror fodder and not just goes for unsettling terror, but laughs along the way. It’s a mixture that surely won’t work for everyone, but those with open minds and a taste for the absurd will see this as another feather in Strickland’s indie hat. It goes without saying, no one else except him could have come up with this concept.
The film follows a cursed dress as it causes misery for anyone who comes into possession of it. Almost like a ghost, it haunts its owner before moving on to the next unlucky soul. First up, it’s Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a lonely divorcee with a teenage son (Jaygann Ayeh) who has a girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie) she can’t stand, and a yearning for adult attention. The bored banker picks up the spectral dress during a sale at a department store seemingly run by a coven of witches. As one unusual clerk (Fatma Mohamed) sells her on the dress, she speaks knowingly about the future. Unfortunately, what starts out with promise for her eventually becomes deadly.
In the second half, the focus moves to an engaged couple about to be wed. During his stag party, Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) is forced by his mates to wear a dress…yes, that dress. Bringing it home, the washing machine repairman has his overbearing fiancé Babs (Hayley Squires) try it on. By now, we know the horror that will befall them, but it takes a while for that to occur. Eventually, things wind up back at that department store, where the film gets even weirder, somehow.
An ensemble piece, “In Fabric” doesn’t really have any acting standouts, though the cast are each doing very different things. Marianne Jean-Baptiste goes for raw emotional vulnerability, while Fatma Mohamed is on the other end of the spectrum, chewing the scenery and loving the excesses of the genre. They form most of the style of the first half of the picture, where the possibilities are still fairly intriguing. In the lesser second half, Leo Bill and Hayley Squires mostly just go through the motions.
Peter Strickland is a one of a kind filmmaker. Between “Berberian Sound Studio,” “The Duke of Burgundy,” and now this, he operates on a unique wavelength. His choices are often off-putting and mainly seem to please Strickland alone, but his talent as a director is undeniable. Here, his screenplay is more scattershot than usual, though the entry of comedy into his horror is a welcome addition. The laughs keep the flick from being too dour an experience, even as it gets more and more bizarre towards the end.
If the sound of a murderous red dress is interesting to you, “In Fabric” will be worth a shot. Another of the weirder movies to grace Film Fest 919 this year, it has A24 releasing it into the world this December. The film will fit right in with their esoteric terror titles. Don’t expect it to do the sort of business their crossover hits manage, but it could end up a cult classic before long.