By DWIGHT BROWN
(NNPA) – She thought she was simply buying a sexy red dress off the rack. But when that frock came home with her, so did the supernatural.
Writer/director Peter Strickland had a wicked vision in mind when he created this campy horror film, which has a style that is reminiscent of the 1977 cult classic Suspiria, by famed 1970s/80s Italian horror director Dario Argento – who gained notoriety for his arty mixture of thriller, mystery, psychological and erotic elements versus unbridled gore.
Director Luca Guadagnino, who directed Call Me by Your Name, succeeded where others have not. His direction exhibits a quirky, artistic style. Scenes melt into each other effortlessly. There’s a dazzling visual flare that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen for 118 minutes. You’re hooked until he’s through weaving a very sordid tale about a dress with a mind of its own and a curse that is deadly.
However, his attempt to mimic Argento’s style is misguided. His failure proves that stepping into this horror subgenre successfully is not that easy.
Sheila, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste who stared in Secrets & Lies, is very conscientious. She’s a chatty and polite bank teller. As a recently divorced single mom, she lives with her young adult son Vince, played by Jaygann Ayeh who starred in The Souvenir. Her offspring, judging by the moans and groans that emanate from his bedroom at night when he’s hosting his lady friend played by Gwendoline Christie, should have been living on his own years ago.
Sheila, tired of being alone, puts her profile on a dating page and is about to meet a new man for dinner. Wanting to make the right impression, she heads to a bizarre London department store and is tempted to buy something wild, for a woman of a certain age. A creepy-looking store clerk, portrayed by Fatma Mohamed, slithers through the aisles like Morticia Adams of The Adams Family, and champions a low-cut red dress.
“Isn’t it a little risqué? I don’t normally wear this kind of thing,” Sheila asked the clerk.
“Be bold. Your date will compliment you. Touch it. Feel it. Here,” the clerk responded.
Sheila’s restaurant rendezvous doesn’t go well. He’s a bore and self-absorbed, with no feel for small talk and no sense of humor. Pity. But at least she has the dress she adores.
Unfortunately, the feeling is not mutual. The frock gives her a rash. It moves around on its own, causes a series of accidents, mishaps and oddities that leave puddles of blood in its wake.
There is something so matter-of-fact about Sheila that when unnatural things vex her you feel extra sorry about her misfortune. Her life turns to tatters. So do the lives of anyone who dons the scarlet garment.
Baptiste leaves her everywoman imprint all over the footage, as Sheila. Her inflection, nonchalant delivery and stoic facial expressions rarely waver, even in the presence of two overbearing bosses, played snidely by Steve Oram and Julian Barratt.
Mohamed’s accent, as the temptress clerk, is so thick you could trip over it, and the clandestine life the character leads gets spookier every minute. Jaygann Ayeh’s chemistry with Baptiste is so natural it’s as if Sheila was his real helicopter mom and he was her actual ungrateful millennial son.
Strickland sets the scare meter at moderate. The horror is consistent but not explosive, yet ghastly in the right places – a little mangling here, some sex there, a washing machine run amuck and untimely deaths. The director brushes on the macabre like an artist choosing the right colors, shapes and textures for a Salvador Dali painting. Tasteful. Sick. Weird. More like an art film gone askew. Not at all like a tacky B-movie.
The costume designer Jo Thompson threads together a catchy wardrobe for the cast, who look prepared to go to work or a freak show, depending. The sets designed by Adrian Greenwood and production design by Paki Smith – from Shelia’s cramped two-story flat to a department store with a secret dumbwaiter that leads to a coven – pull you into a working-class life that clashes with an underworld.
The score, by Cavern of Anti-Matter, has both whimsical and sinister tones. Ditto the sound design by Rob Entwistle. The camerawork evokes an odd feeling as you become the watcher observing a voyeur.
Even with the dry humor and intelligent writing, make no mistake about it; the film is designed to scare you. It does. Small eerie moments pile up, fraying your nerves, building and building – like someone first sticking needles in your back, then switching to knives.
The film is scheduled to be released Dec. 6 in theaters across the country.