One of my great loves in horror is when an inanimate object becomes sinister. Some of my favourites are the trucks and various electronics in Stephen King’s cocaine-fuelled opus, Maximum Overdrive (1986), the spooky mirror in Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013), and the diabolical tire and an insidious leather jacket in Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber (2010) and Deerskin (2019) respectively. The latter example, a haunted piece of clothing, is also the main antagonist of two of the most absurdly compelling horrors I’ve seen in the past few years–Elza Kephart’s Slaxx (2020) and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric (2018). Even among inanimate object horrors, the idea of a piece of clothing, something that’s literally wrapped around you and following you around all day, turning on you is uniquely terrifying. What could be more intimate and less escapable?
Slaxx (Elza Kephart, 2020)
Slaxx tells the story of Libby (Romane Denis), a young woman whose first job is at the ultra-trendy fashion boutique Canadian Cotton Clothiers, a fairly on-the-nose amalgam of American Apparel, The Body Shop, and The Gap. The focus is on fast fashion, limited-edition ‘drops’, and at least a veneer of sustainability and ethical procurements. But, of course, none of that holds up as CCC sources it’s brand new line of automatically-fitted jeans from exploited labour, and the vengeful spirits of those that die in the process haunt the garments. Basically, if you snapped your Phantom Thread DVD in half because of a lack of phantoms, Slaxx has got you covered, and then some.
Libby is hired to help with the soft launch of CCC’s “Super Shapers”, the aforementioned self-adjusting jeans that, unbeknownst to the staff, get their butt-hugging/enhancing properties through the use of an experimental cotton that’s produced using child labour. The soft launch is a big event for CCC, with the head of the corporation Harold Lansgrove (Stephen Bogaert) making an appearance to amp up the young and self-absorbed staff and getting them ready to greet an army of influencers who’ll be coming to spread the word about Super Shapers. Most importantly among these influencers is fashion blogger Peyton Jewels (Erica Anderson), whose word can make or break a product or brand. All this is happening just as the pants begin to turn on their wearers and the store, or at least the back of the store, descends into chaos. CCC store manager Craig (Brett Donahue) is determined to make the event happen–even as his staff are being systematically picked off in violent fashion by the now-sentient and very disgruntled jeans.
Eventually, Libby and her only friend in the store, Shruti (Sehar Bojani) figure out that the pants have a soft spot for Bollywood music, and spare Shruti when she starts speaking to them in Hindi. This is because the pants are embodied by the vengeful spirit of Keerat (Pritha Mazumdar), a worker in the CCC cotton fields in India. The connection is more than a bit facile, but it allows for a scene where several pairs of the jeans do a choreographed dance number, so I’ll allow it.
I get it, friends. A movie about haunted jeans is not the first place you’re going to look for a substantive message about ethical consumption, exploitation, and cultural appropriation. And even with that in mind, Slaxx slid under the radar more than many horror films, most likely because the idea is so batshit and to say the performances by all involved are hammy is not doing justice to hamminess. But Slaxx aims higher than its off-the-wall premise would suggest, and allowing for a loosely fitting definition of ‘substantive’, Slaxx hits its mark. There’s an odd and (in my opinion) compelling juxtaposition of this serious subtext and the imagery of sentient pants that actually have as much personality as anyone in the film, which is not to denigrate the actors’ performances here at all. To me, Slaxx works even when it feels like it shouldn’t. While drawing you in with its absurd premise, its copious-to-the-point-of-laugh-out-loud violence, and maybe the best musical number featuring a disembodied pair of pants dancing to Bollywood music ever, Slaxx slips an unexpectedly-poignant indictment of capitalism and consumerism into your back pocket.
In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)
In Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, it’s not jeans that are haunted, but a much more ominous red (or, rather, “artery-coloured”) dress. Strickland brings his kinky, blood-and-sex-saturated giallo sensibility to this anti-consumerist story. In Fabric starts out as a story–which feels more like a twisted modern fable–about a woman in her 50’s named Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who looks to rekindle her love life after a divorce. In doing so, she manages to arrange a date and seeks out a department store called Dentley & Soper’s which is having a huge sale, complete with an unsettling TV ad advertising it. These ads have a hypnotic, repetitive quality that evokes a lot of the same horror vibes as the analog horror phenomenon while retaining an 80’s British aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in Scarfolk.
Sheila is immediately swept up into the buying frenzy by Fatma Mohamed’s enchantingly witchy sales clerk Miss Luckmoore, who tempts her by being something of a flowery tv advertisement made flesh. Describing the elegant knee-length gown with the black rosebud at the waist as “a panoply of temptation” and turning the ritual of consumerism into a sacred ritual, Luckmoore chants Sheila into the one-of-a-kind garment.
Even outside the inherent weirdness of Luckmoore and her department store fiefdom, it’s plain that something sinister is behind Dentley & Soper’s. The store clerks gather like a coven when the store closes, seeming to sacrifice a bleeding mannequin to sexually arouse each other. The (male) store manager–looking like something out of The Munsters–masturbates off to the side. A department store run by ritualistic, chanting, spooky women, especially in a movie like this which leans so hard on the use of the colour red (present, as it is, in nearly every frame), kind of answers the question, “What if the Tanz Dance Academy from Argento’s Suspiria had a gift shop?”
Things aren’t so rosy for Sheila either. The dress causes her to break out in a rash, and later destroys her washing machine when she tries to clean it. Sheila is in constant conflict with her adult son Vince’s (Jaygann Ayeh) overbearing, undermining girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie), but the dress has plans for them and attempts to strangle Gwen. Later, Sheila is wearing the dress on a date with new boyfriend Zach (Barry Adamson) when she’s attacked by a dog. The dress is badly torn, but somehow re-emerges intact when Vince comes across it and brings it home. Sheila is naturally shaken when she hears the dress rattling about in her closet. Sheila tries to return the dress, but is killed in a car accident with it still in her possession.
Of course, because this is Peter Strickland, who would never be caught dead putting only one through-line in his films, there’s an equally anti-capitalist diversion. We see Sheila’s workplace, a bank, which is overseen by the kind of middle-management that it’s impossible not to despise. This comes in the form of Clive & Stash (Steve Oram and Julian Barratt), who chastise Sheila and critique the firmness and–more obliquely–the “meaningfulness” of handshakes while timing, to the second, their employees’ bathroom breaks. It’s like the movie pauses for a moment to give you a fucked-up scene from The Office.
Halfway through the film, the perspective shifts to that of hapless and insufferably boring washing-machine repair guy Reg (Leo Bill), who’s also an employee of Clive & Stash and is connected to Sheila in the sense that they’re cogs in an oppressive capitalist machine. Reg ends up in possession of the diabolical dress to wear at his stag party. His fiancee Babs takes a liking to the elegant but evil gown and takes it on a shopping trip to Dentley & Soper’s, which burns to the ground with Babs inside it, but not before the dress provokes a riot of unbridled consumerism and entitlement before provoking a literal riot.
The final moments of In Fabric intersect with those of Slaxx in a powerful way. Strickland depicts the dresses’ victims at sewing machines, creating a brand new monster in a way that evokes sweatshops in much the same fashion as Slaxx depicts children like Keerat forced to pick cotton in India. Both films tell us that even the blood-soaked, literally murderous products of violence, exploitation, and enslavement are only that, products. They’re persistent, self-perpetuating, indestructible and they’re only one part of the capitalist machine. Not bugs, but features of a system whose inputs are ghastly, and whose outputs are glamour.
Sachin Hingoo’s pants have turned on him, but not as much because of phantoms as the fact that he has not been to the gym in months.
The Gutter’s own Angela Englert also wrote a bit about In Fabric here.
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