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The Devil in a Red Dress

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

In Fabric, dir. Peter Strictland, 2019

On first viewing, it's tempting to sum up In Fabric as a ludicrous indulgence of horror-noir cliches: woman buys a red dress from creepy saleswoman; it spectacularly blows up her washing machine; it levitates in the air like a ghoul; it's out to get whoever wears it; a coven of witches apparently worship it. It might even qualify as a trampy psychotronic offshoot of something cultish like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Yet in Peter Strickland's hands the horror template only serves to clothe (excuse the pun) the nakedness of a much more terrifying and apparent social reality: what we consume is essentially our enemy and behind every product there is a ruthless manipulator effectively brainwashing us into the habitual perils of retail submission. As such In Fabric cleverly weaves social-realist tragicomedy with deliciously dark and subversive satire to create something arresting, disturbing, funny and memorable. All the time we're watching it we are attuned to the telltale signs of the consumerist traps being continually sprung for us: the falsity of the discount fashion concept; the romanticised patter of a phony sales-pitch ("The hesitation in your voice soon to be an echo in the recesses of the spheres of retail" and "The dress is an image onto which you project an illusion" and “A dress of deduction finds its character in a prism of retail abstraction.” ) delivered with deadpan seriousness; the hypnotic repetition of early 1980's TV adverts with their grating synthesized soundtracks and over-eager camera-work, not to mention the creepy plastic expressionlessness of the mannequins who more than unwittingly resemble the manicured exoticism of the saleslady - a Miss Luckmore - replete with a satanic secret (and played with utter campy perfection by Fatma Mahomed). This movie is visually gorgeous, mainly because it doesn't hide away from pointedly overstating what is always so crudely overstated to us when we throw the dice on any deal in the offing: often accompanied by the sense you're surrendering your soul to the dark lords of capitalism.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, the first victim of the dress' demonic forces. The dress is satiny blood red and Strictland doesn't hold back in playing up the various psycho-sexual fetishistic aspects it conjures: it explodes her washing machine, for goodness sake, and the metaphor is made pretty obvious. This repression is continued when the dress passes into the hands of Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) to wear the night of his stag-do. Reg is a dull, meek washing-machine repairman about to be married to Babs (Hayley Squires), the only woman he has ever known and dated. Despite his introversion, Reg has a habit of sending his clients into an orgasmic hypnotic trance when he reels off techno-babble related to the inner workings of washing machines ad nauseam in a quasi-biblical sort of intonation. It's all brilliant and bizarre and at times very much in the style of David Lynch and at others totally original. The sound editing is out of this world too: a scene when a pair of scissors is heard cutting up pieces of a fashion catalogue where the dress is displayed creates unbearable, seat-squirming tension. The end is a thrilling vision of enslavement to materialism, beautifully capturing the existential nightmare we are submissive to when we realise how trapped we are by what petty objects we need in order to survive and to thrive. One of the details of this climax is revelatory: why is it that as soon as general chaos erupts, inevitably mass looting breaks out? What does this say out our true natures hidden under the ever perishing garments of civilization?


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