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Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Peter Strickland's new absurdist thriller In Fabric (2018).Mongrel

Reviews of Peter Strickland’s new absurdist thriller In Fabric, set around a time-worn Thames Valley department store during the winter sales, almost unfailingly mention The Red Shoes, or come up with pithy imagined elevator pitches for this phantasmagoria about several people loosely connected by a red dress with a mind of its own. The impulse is so irresistible that when I sit down with Strickland, my own facile attempt at a clever elevator pitch for his movie is to call it an Are You Being Served? Christmas episode as directed by Mario Bava. (I may also have thrown Gogol’s overcoat and Max Ophuls in for good measure). But he insists, although admits I won’t believe him, that this is his first movie not influenced by other films.

And the truth is that although it’s awash in crimson horrors, Strickland’s latest cinematic excursion is as unclassifiable as it is defiantly strange. Previous projects have included a giallo-tinged psychodrama about a timid foley artist (played by Toby Jones) and a glorious BDSM fable starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, of Borgen fame. If anything, In Fabric’s inspiration comes from assemblage sculptor Edward Kienholz’s mannequin art (“they’re really, really intense and scary,” Strickland says ) and from the eerie bygone retail palaces themselves.

One scene, for example, uses the same type of archaic pneumatic tube systems that ran through Marshall Field’s, Harrods, and Jacksons, the now-defunct department store in Strickland’s hometown of Reading in England. The antiquated vacuum-powered pathways led to a secure central cash office: “I always imagined where that person is – are they in the basement, are they up there, and what are they doing in this strange place?” Strickland marvels. “Your mind starts working on, what’s going on down there.”

One of Strickland’s favourite films is the Brothers Quay stop-motion short Street of Crocodiles, set ina very different type of shop – an old Eastern European tailoring shop. And they’re like other worlds! A good non-chain shop can be a very powerful place, almost like a strange art gallery. I even remember the carpets in these shops, how they just muffle all sound.”

“It all ties in to this ASMR factor of the film,” he says. “It’s not an erotic reaction, but it’s certainly a very tactile thing – humans connecting to something like a texture.” His affinity for ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) is such that fictional local television commercials in the movie feature hypnotic modulation, and the department store hums with the faint but omnipresent murmur of customers. It’s even deployed in the plot, for deadpan humour – whenever washing-machine technician Reg explains repair logistics, his voice lulls listeners into a pleasant trance.

There are also digressions into the ritual of the department-store universe and the persuasive riddles of catalogue copy and sales-speak, with its nonsensical yet alluring cadence. “A purchase on a horizon, a panoply of temptation. Can a curious soul desist?” is what sales associate Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) trills, like something out of demented Zola, as she glides around in an anachronistic Victorian uniform of black taffeta.

Events in the film are set in motion after a lonely divorcee Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) enters the dating world and finds the perfect dress on sale at the department store; through a series of unfortunate events, it changes hands. Strickland’s initial draft contained the backstory of how the fiendish frock became cursed, until he thought better of it. “I realized what I really wanted to explore was the haunting of clothing, not in a supernatural sense but the haunting that we all have, where clothing is worn by someone – kind of like cleaning out a dead person’s wardrobe, how difficult that is emotionally.”

He may have left the origins of supernatural phenomena unexplained but still maintains that clothes transmit energy. “I think a lot of it is just psychosomatic,” Strickland says. “Clothing by itself? No. But clothing in relation to humans, absolutely. I’m fascinated by this alchemy or fetishization, and I guess a lot of directors that I love – like Svankmajer, Bunuel, Parajanov – had that response to clothing, to objects.”

A dress, stockings, a fleece jacket – they’re a portal but not into a dimension, but to this idea of transformation – reinvention, self-confidence, and identity. The emotional reaction that happens when people don certain garments is what most interested him. “Reg with his tights fetish, it might seem a bit comical but he’s someone who’s haunted by it on a daily basis, or Babs with her body dysmorphia as something that plagues her all the time, and how she sees herself in clothing. Or Sheila having this epiphany when she puts on the dress,” he enumerates. “I think clothing is about deceiving you.”

In Fabric opens Dec. 6 at Edmonton’s Metro Cinema and Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox, and Dec. 10 on AppleTV and VOD