Starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires, Leo Bill, Fatma Mohamed. Written and directed by Peter Strickland. Opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 118 minutes. 14A
The weird bank bosses played by comics Julian Barratt and Steve Oram in Peter Strickland’s horror comedy “In Fabric” sit in front of a poster preaching “the Waingels Wavelength.”
It’s the cheesy corporate mantra for the Waingels Bank, the fictional money repository in a town much like Reading, England, that employs Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste).
She’s a lonely single mom whose desire to glam up for a date, by purchasing a bold red dress, is about to pull on a disturbing thread.
We might also speak of “the Strickland Wavelength.” Full appreciation of the woozy charms of “In Fabric” requires us to turn the dial to writer/director Strickland’s personal radio frequency, so to speak, as can attest anyone who has seen the British auteur’s earlier head-scratchers, such as “The Duke of Burgundy” and “Berberian Sound Studio.”
Watching his films, with their constant shifts in tone, mysteriously motivated characters and arcanely sinister plots, is like twisting the knob of an old analog radio, one with stations all devoted to filmmakers. One turn and you’re into the social realism of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, another takes you to the absurd antics of Guy Maddin, another to the horror thrillers of Dario Argento.
“In Fabric” has all of these influences and more, strained through the cheesecloth of Strickland’s memories of growing up in dreary Reading, where a shop window mannequin could be conjured into a demon in a child’s active imagination.
Set in a pre-internet Blighty that also seems inspired by the old British TV series “Tales of the Unexpected,” the film is kind only to the ghouls who dwell within its shadows.
Chief among them is the dress shop salesperson (Fatma Mohamed) of vampiric look and Transylvanian voice, who persuades hesitant Sheila to purchase the red dress she’s been cautiously eyeing.
The salesperson promises the dress is “a provocation” that will bring attention to Sheila. But it’s not the kind Sheila is counting on.
The dress seems to acquire a life of its own and a desire to cause mayhem, and also strange red skin rashes. There’s a comment here on the folly of following fashion.
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So it goes, not only for Sheila but also for hapless washing machine mechanic Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires), who similarly run afoul of the dress from hell.
None of these people deserve what is coming to them. Claustrophobic lensing by Ari Wegner (“Lady MacBeth”) and a cacophonous synth score by Cavern of Anti-Matter up the dread.
Is “In Fabric” amusing, terrifying or instructive? That cackle you hear, with another twist of the dial, is Strickland’s maniacal laughter.