In Fabric is a high-quality arthouse horror film about a cursed red dresss

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the star of In Fabric. Picture: Supplied
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is the star of In Fabric. Picture: Supplied

In Fabric (MA15+)

4 stars

A haunted red cocktail dress passes through the hands of a series of owners, bringing their lives painful change instead of its advertised promise of love and flirtation in this full-tilt arthouse horror made in the Italian giallo style.

While that premise might sound a bit too out there, I can think of a dozen pieces of fashion from my own personal history that inspire nightmares. The ugly brown epaulets on my high school uniform conjure up memories of acne and disgust. The maroon polyester and golden stitching of my first uniform from an international fast-food chain that impregnated itself with the air-borne oils regardless of how many times it was washed. The oyster-blue skin-tight satin shirt I thought I could pull off one Mardi Gras many years ago.

In Fabric begins with the story of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), awkwardly re-entering the dating scene when it appears her husband will not be coming back. At home is surly son Vince (Jaygann Ayeh) and his oversexed girlfriend and muse Gwen (Gwendolin Christie).

By day Sheila works for a bank and in her evenings, she responds to newspaper lonely hearts advertisements with varying degrees of success.

For a boost to her confidence, Sheila visits a local department store inundated with bargain hunters, and the sales assistant convinces her a particular "artery red" chiffon and silk dress will bring her the promise of compliments and love.

It does, in a way, but also it also brings tragedy, and we later find the dress in the possession of a washing- machine repairman, Reg (Leo Bill). Initially, his mates force him to wear it out on his stag night, and later his new wife Babs (Hayley Squires) will wear it.

Writer and director Peter Strickland might not be familiar to most readers. His previous work is as out-there as this film, though some may have seen his concert documentary Bjork: Biophilia Live.

He works in the Italian giallo horror style, made famous by Dario Argento, and named for the colour of Italian pulp-fiction novels. That means a delightfully old-fashioned approach to the filmmaking craft, with tropes of editing, cuts of old footage, long-held shots, mood and shadow you will be familiar with, as they have been liberally stolen by Hollywood filmmakers for decades.

Strickland is deliberately kooky in every moment - I was expecting to see Tilda Swinton in every scene - and his screenplay is richer and deeper than most conventional horror, than most contemporary films. He explores loneliness both within relationships and out of them, our attachment to objects and the dark commercial drive to consume that our current newsfeeds - fisticuffs between shoppers in supermarkets over toilet paper - demonstrate isn't just for fantastic horror films like this.

He sets his film in the early 1990s in an imaginary British regional city that allows his costume and set design team to go all out. There is an other-universe sense to this location, though the more Strickland makes his characters actions and dialogue awkward, the more real they feel.

Particularly, there's a scene where Sheila is called in to a meeting with the couple who manage her bank. They deliver a David Lynch version of the HR "crap sandwich" (compliment, rebuff, compliment) and despite this being deliberately written in a surrealist tone, it doesn't come close to some the HR weirdness I've experienced over the years. Performances are uniformly good, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste reminding us of those deserved accolades following her turn in Secrets and Lies in 1997.

My favourite performance, though, comes from Fatma Mohamed as shop assistant Miss Luckmoore at the fictional department store Dentley and Soper. Romanian actress Fatma Mohamed gives an hilariously mannequin-like performance, which is entirely the point. We cannot be sure she isn't an animated shop mannequin, a vampire, or whether her store is a metaphor for hell or this is just general weirdness. Anyone who has worked in retail will attest that a department store can be a literal hell. No metaphor.

Its been some time since a film so purely arthouse has had a cinema release and I'm here for it.

This story Red dress brings pain in arthouse horror first appeared on The Canberra Times.