Hyper-intelligent and more than a little seedy, the films of British director Peter Strickland obscure the line between high and low horror. In his new offering, A24’s In Fabric, Strickland spins the most mundane activity imaginable—shopping for a new dress in a department store—into an unsettling supernatural experience. Marianne Jean-Baptiste slips into her best role in years as Sheila, a lonely bank teller looking for a little excitement. Ahead of a blind date, she goes shopping for the perfect dress and finds a chic red frock that feels made for her. But like all great villains, the dress has one hell of a backstory.
Ahead of Metrograph’s exclusive New York run of In Fabric, Strickland sat down with us to talk about the horror genre, his oddball influences, and a lifelong fixation with department stores.
Peter Strickland: Metrograph is on Ludlow Street, right? I shot my first movie down on Ludlow Street, 20 years ago. There’s a lot of history down on Ludlow Street. There was an apartment where Tony Conrad and Jack Smith had their studio and recorded music.
Austin Dale: Around the corner is where Jack Smith shot Flaming Creatures.
Peter Strickland: I love all of those movies. I mean, as a suburban kid from the UK, it was so exotic to me. The whole New York underground was something I was really fascinated by.
Austin Dale: How long did you live in New York?
Peter Strickland: I never actually lived in New York. I had a great aunt in Woodhaven, Queens. I did art at university, and doing art, you could disappear for a month. So I'd go to New York in the off-season, stay with my aunt in Queens, get the J train to Manhattan, and go to the Millennium Cinema, Anthology Film Archives, and Filmmakers Coop. MM Serra was running it then, and she was really helpful. That's how I made my first short film, Bubblegum, with Holly Woodlawn and Nick Zedd.
At the time, getting everyone together to make the film was strangely easy: I got the phone book, found Filmmakers’ Coop, and went there. I met Johannes Schönherr through MM Serra, and he introduced me to Todd Phillips, who knew Richard Kern, and Richard Kern introduced me to Nick Zedd. The only hard part was that it was 16mm, and that was expensive. At the time my bibles were Midnight Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman and Light Moving in Time by William C. Wees, which was about the more formally experimental filmmakers: Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson. My films don’t really fall into either of those camps now, but that was my entry point.
Austin Dale: That’s interesting, because those aren’t at all the films people talk about in comparison to yours. Critics always bring up giallo and exploitation films.
Peter Strickland: With my first film, Berberian Sound Studio, yes. But on In Fabric, no. It keeps coming up in interviews, though. I can see why, but to be honest, there was not much influence from film for In Fabric. What influenced me was actual department stores: My memories of them are very flamboyant, theatrical, mysterious, erotic. Also, there was this sculptor Edward Kienholz, who presented this world of damaged, scary mannequins, which really fired my imagination as a kid. I really tried to use the perspective of my childhood.
There were a few subtle cinematic influences, perhaps: Carnival of Souls, in terms of the artifice and the atmosphere, and William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, which uses this kind of pop cinema, taking images from catalogs and putting them on a bigger canvas. People keep saying Suspiria, but honestly, it was not on my mind at all.
One important reference were these ASMR videos on YouTube. I really got into that, massively into it. I didn't realize until 2015 that I'm prone to this. Someone asked me why my films have these elements of ASMR, whispering and so on.
Austin Dale: Do you have the physical sensation people talk about?
Peter Strickland: It's not physical for me. It's not even intense. It's just very mild relaxation. I just zone out. A lot of the music I was into triggered these same responses. I always wondered why I don’t have an intellectual response to music like Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing, Nurse with Wound, or Luc Ferrari, with his musique concréte, which had whispering and certain repetitive low-level sounds. Then I discovered all of these videos on YouTube.
My memory of department stores became very caught up in these sort of ASMR sounds. The catalogs you would flip through was this very thin paper, with high-gloss images, so it made a certain kind of sound. Now when you go into a store, they’re like nightclubs. Back then they were very quiet places, and you could hear the muttering of people shopping. It was a very, very sensual experience.
Austin Dale: Where did the seed of this story—this idea of a haunted dress—come from?
Peter Strickland: With all these projects, it’s a whole bunch of things coming together. I think one of them was shopping for secondhand clothing. You're aware of stains and smells which came from somebody else. It’s this very bizarre proxy intimacy with someone and you will never even know what they look like. Are they dead? Are they alive? That really activates the imagination. That presence of someone else really generates thoughts about the visceral responses we have to clothing: How you feel when someone's died, someone very close to you, and you can't get rid of their clothing. It's very powerful to you. It's very personal to you. But it's just a piece of clothing. Then you start thinking about sexual fetishism, about body dysmorphia, how you feel transformed when you wear a particular thing, and how you can escape yourself and escape your problems.
In my mind, I didn’t see it as an anti-consumerist film. The characters, especially Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s character, why wouldn’t they treat themselves to something to wear? With the main characters, I wanted to give them some dignity, let them be human, give them screen time, and not just bob them off really quickly. It’s more powerful if you spend time with them. You actually care about them that way.
Austin Dale: Were you thinking of an exact time when this film takes place?
Peter Strickland: Yes. January 1993. I was also obsessed with how I would introduce Marianne’s character in an interesting way? I remembered the personal adverts I saw as a teenager. You'd sell yourself to a prospective lover. It's an interesting way to reveal someone's character, how they see themselves, and what they want from someone else, in 50 words. For me, 1993 felt like the last year in which that was mainstream, because internet dating took over after that. It was a very superficial reason, but I really wanted to introduce Marianne in that way.
Austin Dale: Internet shopping would have begun to take over as well. Nowadays, there’s a discomfort with the intimacy of shopping in a department store.
Peter Strickland: Yes, especially the wait for your money. In Jacksons, you had those pneumatic pipes for the money. So there'd be quite an agonizing wait for your money to come back, and you’re just standing there, at the cash desk, face to face with this person. Do you make small talk? Do you look around? Do you just look at each other?
I’m also interested in how the British use euphemisms. I don't know how it is in America, but we're obsessed with dressing up language, and I exaggerated it with In Fabric. I remember going to a job center years ago, before I made films, and there was a night shift job for shelf stacking in a warehouse. And typical Britain: They had to call it "twilight replenishment operative,” which is really poetic. People think the way Fatma Mohamed’s character speaks is really whack, but actually it's not that whack. I'm exaggerating it, of course, but I always want my films to have a connection to real life. I never wanted to snap that cord. I want to stretch it as far as possible.
Austin Dale: What are your thoughts on contemporary horror films?
Peter Strickland: To be honest, I’m not really into horror. The films I love which are in that genre, I love for other reasons. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I love it because of its feral energy. I love giallo films for their soundtracks. I love Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s films for the same reason I like a lot of gay pornography, like Wakefield Poole’s films: They’re psychadelic, and it’s transformative.
There's this term we always hear in the business: Elevated genre. I never really liked that term, because it implies a kind of dismissal of the original genre work. I still have a lot of respect for exploitation cinema. What I'm interested in is the tension between exploitation and characters: their hopes and anxieties and fetishes and so on, and the collision of human human beings with this kind of made up world.
Austin Dale: Are you the kind of person who doesn’t scare easily in films?
Peter Strickland: No, I scare a lot. I actually really don’t like people suffering in films. The films I love, I love for other reasons. There are some films I like, which would probably get me banned for life from making films if people knew. Shaun Costello’s Water Power. It's a very, very disturbing film, but it's well made. It's hardcore. The problem is that he made it to get people off, but I see it as a nightmare, and as a nightmare, it works really effectively. Extreme caution. It is really unpleasant, but the use of music and the editing is extraordinary. I copied the credit sequence from Water Power for In Fabric.
But I would never condone what you see in a film like that. There was some really dark stuff going on in there. The mafia were funding those films. It’s extremely misogynistic. This is not Boys in the Sand, where what you see is pornography, but it's consensual, it's joyful, and it's a celebration of intimacy. But something like Water Power? It’s not pleasant. I come from an art school background, and I grew up watching Bergman and Buñuel and Bresson, but eventually, you go looking for things you can’t find in art house.