• Peter Strickland's latest feature 'In Fabric' (MIFF)Source: MIFF
The British director – whose Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014) are modern cult hits – talks about his formative cinematic experiences and his latest feature, the deliciously weird killer-dress horror-comedy In Fabric.
Stephen A. Russell

12 Aug 2019 - 2:57 PM  UPDATED 12 Aug 2019 - 3:18 PM

Given that a furious riot breaks out on the floor of a department store where arcane rituals occur and where Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Sheila picks up a (literal) killer dress, it’s hardly surprising that some viewers read Peter Strickland’s giallo-infused horror comedy In Fabric as a swipe at consumerism gone mad.

He doesn’t see it as we sit down together in a laneway cafe during the Melbourne International Film Festival, his unassuming brown corduroy blazer a world away from glamour magazine aspirations. In fact, lunchtime trips to buy a shirt at Top Man were a welcome break from the dull suburban drudgery of office mundanity living in Reading, some 20-minute train ride east of London.

“It’s that need for escape,” he suggests. “There is a gentle satirical element, in the looting and fighting, but I love those characters. The horror is I don’t want them to go. It’s not like a slasher where I am punishing them for having sex. The horror of the dress is that it is random and irrational. That’s the terror of death.”

In that sense, I suggest there’s something of Stephen’s King’s dread-filled nice neighbourhoods in this very personal movie. “For me, it was very much write-what-you-know, and that was my life in the 1990s. In the ‘80s I was very privileged, because I went to posh school but then, when you leave, it’s back to reality.”

The passive-aggressive savagery behind Sheila’s bank manager bosses and their painted smiles will speak to many. In Fabric shares DNA with the wry observational humour of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office. “I always thought doing those jobs was waste of time, but actually it wasn’t,” Strickland offers. “There was so much material and that program really unlocked that potential, and also the way to use humour as a kind of catharsis.”

Strickland was a pretty mainstream kid, listening to Radio 1 and following the charts. He bought Empire magazine, but it was a Time Out interview with Jim Jarmusch about Mystery Train (1989) that opened the door to somewhere weirder. David Lynch blew the hinges off with the poster to Eraserhead. “That unmistakable, iconic image, even if you hadn’t seen the film, was a portal into a very different world… That was my road to Damascus, my epiphany, and everything I wrote after that was very derivative. Everything led back to Lynch, and it took me a long, long time to shed that.”

He first saw the film at London’s hallowed Scala, care of the revered Jane Giles’ immaculate repertory programming. “I was 16, it was my first time in London on my own and I didn’t understand the film. I just didn’t get it, but the cinema was an extension of the film, even the noise of the Northern Line running underneath. It shows how important it is to have someone physically thinking about which film goes with which.”

And to hell with the highbrow/lowbrow binary. “Back then there was a hierarchy. The Bergmans were scholarly, as was Tarkovsky. Russ Meyer was still trash, as was Italian horror, but Jane Giles made no distinction between John Waters, Dario Argento, Fassbinder and Tarkovsky, so it felt like everything was up for grabs.”

Reading books like Cult Movies by Danny Peary and Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum paved the way to Strickland’s outré oeuvre, kicking off with 2009’s feminist vengeance quest Katalin Varga. His introduction to My Bloody Valentine’s wall of sound and avant-garde mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian deeply influenced the disturbed movie sound recording world of Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

“Between films, because it was so expensive then to make them, I’d do music, which was lot cheaper because I had friends with gear. What was interesting for me was no one really liked a song like ‘Visage’ with Luciano Berio. They’d say, ‘Turn it off. It’s terrible. It’s just some woman wailing,’ but if you put it to a horror film, it ignites the imagination, and that got me thinking about Penderecki’s music and the way Kubrick used it in The Shining. Like Alan Splet and David Lynch.”

"Making movies is a very selfish thing. The reason I wanted to do film was to deal with my obsessions, to get them on paper and on film"

Strickland’s joy in unsettling sound design permeates In Fabric. It also sees a cameo from his regular Fatma Mohamed, as well as a scene-stealing turn by Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen as a retail enchantress whose bizarre pubic blood rituals with mannequins arguably one ups her bondage and water sports showing in Strickland’s 2014 feature The Duke of Burgundy.

“I always enjoy that with the films I watch,” Strickland says of his regulars. “So I think of John Waters using Edith Massey, Divine and Mink Stole, Paul Morrissey using Joe Dallesandro and Fassbinder with Margit Carstensen and Hanna Schygulla. I love the continuity of it all and the element of surprise. What are they gonna be this time?”

It’s hard to argue for when financiers push for the biggest name, but Strickland fights for the unique ecosystem of his stylishly erotic, confrontational movies that push the boundaries he crossed over a long ago at the Scala. Sometime that makes him hard to work for, he admits, which is why it was fun to take a back seat for Bjork, working alongside Nick Fenton on Biophilia Live.

“There’s something really refreshing about surrendering yourself to someone else. I sound like I’m in a bondage scenario now, back to Burgundy, but it was really beautiful servicing what she wanted. I don’t have to argue with anyone. Whereas with my films, I’m always having small fights about this and that, so I want to do more of that, writing for hire and that kind of thing. When it’s my work I guess I’m a bit of an arsehole. I’m very selfish and indulgent. But making movies is a very selfish thing. The reason I wanted to do film was to deal with my obsessions, to get them on paper and on film.”

In Fabric screened recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival alongside a retrospective of Strickland's work and influences. For more info, click here.

Strickland will also be participating in a masterclass at the Australian Film Television and Radio School on the evening of Monday, August 12th. Tickets are free but seating is limited; register online to book.