I’ve often discussed the difference between grindhouse and arthouse. That line is quite easy to cross and hard to define at the same time. The films of Peter Strickland are great examples of movies that live between that division. From the revenge film Katalin Varga and the giallo-exploring Berberian Sound Studio to the Jess Franco homage The Duke of Burgundy, he’s taken movie forms that would normally be video nasties in his nome country and made them palatable to a more refined mindset.
Sheila Woodchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, TV’s Without A Trace) is a recently divorced woman whose life is bleak to say the very least. Her son still takes his father’s side and has a new femme fatale girlfriend (Gwendoline Christine, who played Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones and Captain Phasma in the recent Star Wars movies) who has taken over their home. At work, her bosses Stash (Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh) and Clive constantly asks her to document all her time, how she shakes hands and even how she speaks to her boss’s mistress. And her attempts at finding love are boring at best.
That all changes when she visits Dentley and Soper’s to buy a dress from Miss Luckmoore. Of course, that dress soon begins to make her life even worse, giving her a rash and nearly tearing off her hand when she attempts to wash it. Every time the dress is nearly destroyed, it repairs itself. And then it tries to kill Gwen as she has sex. Finally, as Sheila tries to bring the dress to a charity shop, she’s killed when a mannequin appears in the middle of the road, causing her to crash.
The dress finds its way to washing machine repairman Reg Speaks, who is forced to wear it by his friends. His life is also a nightmare, as he’s in a loveless engagement with Babs and his boss delights in abusing him. Also — for some reason — people love to hear him drone on about washing machine issues, as it makes them go into trances.
It all ends with Reg being fired and then hypnotized by ads for the store’s sale and suffocating from a gas leak. At the very same time, Babs tries to get another dress and realizes that the store is where her dream of getting thinner and dying occurred. The dress catches fire as the store turns into a riot of shoppers.
Land and a mannequin escape into a dumbwaiter, where a dead model, Sheila, Reg, and Babs are all shown sewing their own dresses from their blood, a hell of their own making, while other spaces are shown for more souls. Above this all, a fireman walks through the ruined store only to find the dress has emerged unscathed.
This film feels inspired by the post-giallo supernatural horrors of Argento. But while those strange Italian horrors seem to be able to exist within the absolute film excuse that nothing has to make sense, the shift between story one and two here is so abrupt that it feels as if we’re watching two different films with the same story.
My wife had been anxiously awaiting this film and to say that she was disappointed is an understatement. I’m much more forgiving of movies that want to be important art with something to say while she wants more narrative cohesion. She must love me, because she sat through all of El Topo in a theater, an act which she has later complained of numerous times.
Back to how this all opened. If you go into this hoping for art, you’re going to have to wallow in the miasma of exploitation. And if you want a thrill, you’ll find yourself dealing with an examination of London consumerism in the mid-70’s. I don’t know if this movie can truly sastisfy either audience properly. But hey — it’s another example of A24 knowing exactly how to cut a trailer that makes people want to see a movie that they otherwise probably would have never watched in the first place.