Filmmakers don’t often come as niche-y as England’s Peter Strickland, a cinematic resurrectionist who creates horror movies out of the hive mind of the pop-culture past. “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) and “The Duke of Burgundy" (2014) didn’t feel released so much as coughed up from the back shelves of a cult video store, the kind specializing in Italian giallo flicks and surrealist Euro-gore from the ’60s and ’70s. His latest, “In Fabric,” continues the Strickland fever dream: A deliriously weird tale of a homicidal dress, it’s a painstaking re-creation of a bygone genre with frisky notes of modern gonzo.
A downtrodden British bank clerk, Sheila (played by the always excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste), purchases the dress, a hot red number, for a lonelyhearts date. It’s the only one of its kind, says Miss Luckmore, the clerk at Dentley and Soper’s Trusted Department Store. The store appears to be a retail outpost of a satanic religious sect, and the clerk herself (Fatma Mohamed, the director’s regular muse) speaks in hilariously florid vampire-talk: “A dress of deduction finds its character in a prism of retail abstraction.” Late at night, unspeakable things are done to mannequins in the store’s back rooms.
All Sheila knows is that the dress gives her a nasty rash before tearing her washing machine to pieces; it also has a habit of moving around on its own when no one is looking. True to its genre roots, “In Fabric” has no interest in realism but instead amps up an atmosphere of deadpan Kafkaesque dread, shot through with jolts of black humor. Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones” has a smallish role as the arrogant hipster girlfriend of Sheila’s son (Jaygann Ayeh), and Julian Barrett and Steve Oram are an amusing tag-team act as Sheila’s bank bosses, issuing nonsensical demands and upping the general paranoia quotient.
“In Fabric” is good bizarre fun, but after a while that’s all it is. At a certain point, Sheila disappears and the dress moves on to Reg (Leo Bill), a meek washing-machine repairman, and his fiancée, Babs (Hayley Squires). Strickland lets the dream life of his characters take over the movie, and some of the visions — like a nightmarish childbirth sequence — are grotesquely inspired. By then the movie has become untethered from any sort of plot logic, which will endear it to connoisseurs of psychotronic midnight fare while leaving the majority of viewers out in the cold. But Strickland doesn’t make ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all experiences. “In Fabric” is bespoke horror for a discerning and self-selecting clientele.
Written and directed by Peter Strickland. Starring Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed, Gwendoline Christie. At The Brattle. 118 minutes. R (strong sexual content including a scene of aberrant behavior, some bloody images)