Between his intricately-wrought, deeply-imagined feature films, writer-director Peter Strickland has worked in audio drama – crafting a reworking of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape and several original radio plays, some of which are more squarely in the horror or comedy of awkwardness genres that his features tend to straddle.
Set in ‘Thames-Valley-on-Thames’ sometime in the past (details suggest the 1970s to 1980s), this could be boiled down to a spin on Cornell Woolrich’s ‘I’m Dangerous Tonight’ – which was made into a TV film by Tobe Hooper – as an accursed red dress brings doom to those who wear it, though the film is as caught up with the enclosed worlds of three businesses that operate as closed universes that might squeeze into the drabber, scarier end of Wes Anderson’s universe … the womens’ ware section of Dently & Soper’s department store … a branch of Waingell’s bank … and a washing machine repair service. All are run by strange, perverse, remote tyrants – a manager (Richard Bremner) who looks like Howard Vernon playing Nosferatu in some mutant spin on Are You Being Served? … a genial gay couple (Steve Oram, Julian Barratt) who take advantage of interviews with staff or clients to offer roleplay about the most meaningful way to shake hands or go into ecstasies when bad dreams are recounted … and a snarling bald mute thug who fires a minion for the infraction of fixing his own washing machine by eating their identity card.
The catalogue model who first wore the dress (Sidse Babett Knudsen, from The Duke of Burgundy) is dead before the film starts, and the sinister scarlet number is peddled by the bizarre Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) to just-ditched Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), whose sulky son (Jaygann Ayeh) is mixed up with acidly vampish bathroom hog Gwen (Gwendoline Christie). Sheila needs the dress to perk up her glum dating, which puts her through a nightmare spin on the sort of evenings out found in early Mike Leigh films, but it brings her out in a runic rash, makes her washing machine go bananas, and prompts a dog to savage her, even as other things in her life subtly or blatantly go wrong. We see the evil dress levitate and slither, but it’s not specified whether the dead model was a former victim or is now a vengeful spirit.
Past the halfway point, the dress is taken from a charity shop and washing machine repairman Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) is forced to wear it at his stag night, then passing it on to his controlling fiancee Babs (Hayley Squires) even as its red shadow falls on them both. Strickland coins new obsessions and languages for each of his films, and here we get impossible-to-follow, high-flown sales pitches at D&S’s which render even the emergency fire evacuation announcement (necessary in an anarchic finale) too difficult for the average shopper to parse … plus intricate recitals of the non-working parts of dysfunctional washing machines that are on a par with the birdwatching of Berberian Sound Studio and the moth talk of The Duke of Burgundy.
As with Ben Wheatley – an exec prod here – Strickland wears his eclectic influences lightly, taking as much from throwaway ads and information films as Euro-art/sex/horror classics, but also creates his own vivid, funny, perversely sexy enclosed worlds.