The marriage of film and fashion is a shaky, jealous one. For every Gaultier designing The Fifth Element, or the intricacies of every sewing shot in Phantom Thread, there are a zillion rom-coms where the lead works at a nondescript fashion magazine that has zero relevance to the bland look of the film. The horror film version of the fashion world is even more odd, at its worst exhibiting a shallow genre taking on a shallow subject. There is a beautiful and strange collection inside this niche microgenre, however, and this Halloween, we bring you an overview of the most stylish fashion ever to be filed alongside gore.
BLOW UP (1965), dir. by Michaelangelo Antonioni
A tribute to Hitchcock by his peer, rather than his student — ie the films of De Palma, Argento, Franklin, Chabrol, Carpenter, et al — Blow Up is Antoini’s first English language film, and his second film in color after Red Desert (arguably the best color film of the 60s, which is a stacked category). Blow Up became a massive influence on all of Hitchcock’s stylistic children in the 70s/80s in films like Blow Out, The Conversation and Deep Red.
Antonioni took the subject of a fashion photographer in swinging London to explore voyeurism, reality, and the concept (and fallacy) of the reproduced image itself. The emptiness of fashion is such a lazy and boring take, but the movie presses the fact that this is a man who doesn’t really care about anything except his process — not even his craft — and, even when he himself finally cares about something, the world he lives in still doesn’t.
The photoshoots in the movie are a highlight. The modern fashion photo montage as we understand it in film was invented by Stanley Donen for the 1957 Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face (itself a huge influence on technicolor horror masterpiece Suspiria), but in this movie, the fashion photography is especially stylish and brilliant, including real life models Veruschka and Peggy Moffit, who starred in the great non-horror 60s fashion film Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?. Very few contemporary films are influential on fashion, but Blow Up proved to be enormously influential, impacting wider popular culture, even as the film itself is a disquieting take on the impermanence of almost everything. Materialism is empty, and the search for the truth also proved to be quicksilver through your fingers, as demonstrated by the evidence of the murder David Hemmings’ little shit of a photographic genius accidentally captures being rendered murky, and vanishing when he tries to show it to anyone.
Antonioni saw the styles of the ‘60s as an intricate filigree over nothing, with codes of conduct strange to him but just as devoid of meaning as the capitalist world he had been exposing as empty for the decade before. The clothes just looked better.
BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1960) dir. Mario Bava
A faceless killer in a trench coat and hat (like Steve Ditko’s comic character the Question!) knocks off the major employees of a haute couture fashion house in Mario Bava’s first full-length, non-supernatural, bloodbath.
Beginning the trend of stylish horror being legitimately focused on style. Mario Bava’s use of lurid colored lights and baroque compositions was not simply because he was Mario Bava, inventor of the Giallo style; the style rose out of the material, giving birth to the genre’s hallmarks in its wake. Bava incorporated his already-present strong flourishes — sadistic and brutal violence, crash zooms, a sense of no one character actually being good, everyone with knives in the backs of all their peers — into the material, and as a result, the movie luxuriates on the kills, something he would later become famous for.
However, Bava was truly stylish in a way that his copycats were graphic, the deftness of his hand on the hacksaw desecrating a corpse. Most stunning may be the opening titles, where dress models are posed against each cast member in the manner in which they will later die.
Blood and Black Lace was a lodestone film for the Italian genre industry, but specifically there have been multiple Italian movies where a masked killer kills a collection of models — Bava’s own psychotronic A Hatchet For Honeymoon, Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris, Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude For Your Killer and Bava’s son’s Lamberto’s sleazefest Delirium. They’re mostly an excuse for hot women to be murdered — and a particularly lazy one, considering how many of the genre’s best movies offer that without taking place in a modeling agency or fashion house.
EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978), dir. Irvin Kershner
When people try to distinguish between the giallo — the Italian term for mystery fiction — and the slasher movie as something more than just a difference of geography, Eyes of Laura Mars often ends up described as an “American giallo”. The two terms, however, are not interchangeable.
There are many quibbles about genre and structure, but to me, the primary difference is that the income of the main character of a giallo is almost always very high, and they are often forced to solve crimes by an inept or hostile police force. By this definition, Eyes of Laura Mars is not a slasher movie, just as Sergio Martinio’s excellent 1973 feature Torso is definitely more of an Italian slasher movie than it is a giallo.
In Laura Mars, high status fashion photographer Laura Mars (as played by Faye Dunaway) keeps remote viewing from the eyes of the murderer, leading eventually to her seeing herself from his eyes.
The finest aspect of The Eyes of Laura Mars is the photoshoot scenes, where many shots look similar to real fashion spreads of the era, including a scene of models fighting in front of burning cars in the Manhattan streets. Mars as a photographer is presented as a combo of Annie Liebowitz and Robert Maplethorpe, huge but also controversial to the point of contentious.
The Eyes of Laura Mars never quite coheres, probably because it never allows itself to linger on any of the violence that the characters keep discussing in real life and in Laura’s work. John Carpenter has since disavowed the final product — he wrote the remote viewing story long before establishing his own voice; writing and directed two films, including Halloween, the same year — but Irvin Kershner was always a stellar director of actors, and this studio film manages to have a great performance from a very young Brad Dourif (as a poorly drawn red herring), with Tommy Lee Jones delivering a monologue so truly unhinged that you can almost ignore how bizarre it is.
Ultimately, though, this feels like everyone is doing their best to say… nothing? Is the point of the movie that depicting violence can also encourage it? Perhaps, but it remains unclear even after multiple viewings.
THE SENTINEL (1977), dir. Michael Winner
The New York fashion mystery had its own small run in the late 1970s, likely inspired by the model audition scene and dressing room violent denouement in Klute — a kind of giallo in its own form. (None of those copycats had Gordon Willis’ lighting, though.) Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 takes place in the fashion district, and star Zoe Tamerlis Lund once correctly pointed out that is a rape revenge film where the villain is the boss who exploits women for their labor.
Far more coherent — and much trashier — is The Sentinel, the story of a model moving into a Brooklyn brownstone that is secretly a gateway to hell. Cristina Raines is perfectly cast in this unsettling 1970s New York showpiece. Directed by Michael Winner at the height of his troglodyte savant status between Death Wish 1 and 2, the film provides an all star cast — Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, Burgess Meredith, Chris Sarandon, Sylvia Miles, Christopher Walken, John Carradine and a mysteriously dubbed Jeff Goldblum — as well as brilliant pacing, hideous effects and a sudden aesthetic turn to the revulsive.
Like Laura Mars, the editorial photoshoot sequence is a gorgeous highpoint of the movie. Unlike Laura Mars however, Alison Parker (Raines) also goes to other photo jobs, like a commercial. The New York the film depicts feels both accurate and stylized, with a large portion of the film being about finding an apartment and negotiating how difficult the people are. As a Brooklyn resident myself, the undead murderers who makeup Alison’s neighbors are no worse than half the people I’ve lived with in the past two years.
Almost every scene in The Sentinel is great, but there are two particularly iconic images from The Sentinel: Raines posing in front of a pool with two afghan hounds, and her character wearing a slip, cutting a dead man’s nose off. This is a very stylish movie — and it’s also about a half naked woman running around a house with a knife.
There are a dozen smarter directors but few who would do the job as well as Winner. Made by mixing a cacophony of trends of the period — Catholic horror, haunted houses, the slasher, etc. — this accidentally becomes a great character portrait of a kept woman with mental illness being taken care of by those around her until it kills her. Raines is excellent in the role, as she is the only reason the mostly-open cinematography makes you feel claustrophobic. The encounters with the ghosts and flashbacks of parental abuse are disturbing.
Another wonderful element of the movie — probably due to Winner having no true aesthetic preoccupations — is that the fashion element is not used as a frivolous waste of life, but a demanding job: Raines is struggling, and the movie could act very well as a metaphor for a depression related eating disorder, with her job as a symptom of her empty life, but the story functions so well without the metaphor.
It’s one of the great New York movies of the 70s and it also has a birthday party for a cat thrown by ghosts.
IN FABRIC(2019), dir. Peter Strickland
Director Peter Strickland’s career has been entirely presented at a remove of his interest in exploitative subjects, despite Strickland’s actual experience in the New York underground film scene and his deep love of giallo, gay 70s porn, eurosleaze, fetish films, 70s BBC adaptations of MR James and Nigel Kneale. Strickland feels very wary of bringing a straight male gaze to this material and, sometimes, it’s to his detriment.
In Fabric has that problem, in that Strickland is at times a British comedy director in the guise of a genre filmmaker — and that both of those often take on the properties of the other. It also features the disquieting and psychedelic elements of all his influences taken to a new place. In Fabric may be the ultimate in Fashion Horror as a micro genre, in that it’s a story of a haunted dress.
The film is bifurcated, the first half — the one in the trailer — is the story of a middle aged woman who starts dating after a divorce, with the second half being about a washing machine repair man. Both halves are connected by the cursed dress. The movie becomes the story of an object, as well as a tale of how commerce can dominate the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
What is truly striking about the film is the way it uses every facet of fashion that’s already unnerving: mannequins that don’t look human, used clothing that may have belonged to a dead person, repetitive store announcements, checkout transactions that veer too close to personal interactions, Black Friday fistfights. Sometimes it manages to be both funny and disturbing at once, such as the scene where two witches dress a mannequin in such a sexually provocative way that it’s arguably the best sex scene of Strickland’s career. Fatma Mohammed smearing blood all over her face is indelible and beautiful, but the scene is ridiculous; it’s also the best mannequin sequence since William Lustig’s 1980’s sleazefest Maniac.
Along the same lines, the department store burning to the ground as the loudspeaker laughs at the carnage is shockingly memorable; in these moments, Strickland is an experimental filmmaker, albeit one that many compare to Argento mostly because he has a good color sense; in execution, his films are more like a more sexually actualized Ken Russell.
THE PSYCHIC (1977), dir. Lucio Fulci
Lucio Fulci’s giallo fantastico Seven Notes In Black — released in the states as The Psychic, with an amazing and highly influential HR Giger poster — is the most restrained and glamorous film in the director’s filmography.
Fulci’s first of seven collaborations with his longtime writer Dardano Sachetti, the movie tells the story of the young wife of a powerful businessman (Jennifer O’Neill) who has hallucinatory visions of a dead body in the walls of his dilapidated chateau. The film is sweeping in its use of tone. Fulci — known by the appellation “The Godfather of Gore” for his post-Zombi 2 career — is not known for his restraint, and his mid-period work is far more stylish than his later material, but with the same desire to hold on shots and witness the horror instead of suggesting it.
The Psychic is also distinguished by the opulence in its clothes and locations, as well as its diffuse lighting, baroque compositions, and intense camera movement. This is clearly a film that lives in the moneyed world of its characters. Prominently placed in The Psychic’s opening titles is “Furs By Fendi” and “Jewelry by Bulgari”; a credit more suited for a Bond film than this ‘70s variation on The Tell Tale Heart. (Sachetti had a true gift for endings that punch you in the chest, as this movie demonstrates.)
PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016), dir. Olivier Assayas
Personal Shopper is the kind of cinema that dwells on a charismatic performer as they move throughout their world — films like No Country for Old Men, where we watch Josh Brolin think for large portions of the movie forcing us to second guess good and bad decisions, or Blow Out, where John Travolta’s training as a dancer is used to make an essentially boring activity like syncing sound to a piece of film electrifying. It’s a kind of work so dependent on not only stardom, but being present in one’s body. It’s also not the kind of performance often given on the first collaboration between star and director.
Kristen Stewart, full of glances and small gestures, makes her character here impossible to look away from; the intimacy of her fingers dancing in the air as she makes a judgement call is stronger than the matter-of-fact nudity in some scenes. Playing Maureen, a personal shopper as the title says, she spends the film in a holding pattern: trying on someone else’s clothes, waiting for someone else’s ghost (her dead twin brother), waiting for reimbursement on someone else’s bills, being framed for someone else’s theft, being the object of someone else’s fantasies. Throughout the movie, she is confronted over and over with her own body, from her matching measurements to her attunement with the spirit world to the heart murmur that killed her twin.
Assayas has essentially remade The Psychic here, down to the chateau outside a major city, shooting Kristen Stewart’s darkened silhouette in luxe interiors. The clothing, costume designed by Jurgen Doering, looks like the kind you would find in a pret-a-porter fitting room — the highlight being a glittering Chanel dress. (Stewart is a Chanel Ambassador, and cuts a distinctly different figure in the movie.)
Assayas’ last decade-plus has been focused on the ways in which late stage capitalism has transformed our behavior on a micro stage while depicting the force of the macro, and the centerpiece of Personal Shopper is a sequence where Maureen receives texts from an unknown person on a day-trip from Paris to London. It’s breathtaking where the sequence should be banal, because texting has never been believable on film before; we watch as she processes fear, elation, and grief in the space of the most boring possible thing, commuting.
Texting is so close to being a medium already, and this scene plays as if watching a conversation with a ghost. What she says to the ghost is what is constantly being asked of her: “I need more from you. I’m gonna need more from you.”
NEON DEMON (2016), dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
The best fashion horror film is probably The Sentinel. The best movie about fashion period…? It could be Polly Maggoo, or Funny Face, or Gia, or The Devil Wears Prada. (It’s not that last one.) But, no; it’s none of those. It’s actually The Neon Demon.
Directors are, by nature, magpies. Nicolas Winding Refn is the most visually gifted director of our era — he’s also indulgent and masturbatory, as to be expected with an aging enfant terrible — and, here, he seems to want to make a movie about fashion, but he uses it as a container for all these scene-long digressions into abandoned and disturbed subgenres: there’s a Jean Rollin style lesbian blood cult movie, a psychedelic body dysmorphia movie, some De Palma voyeurism, some Schrader revulsion with sex, some Nekromantik 2, some Showgirls, the list goes on. The climactic photoshoot in the movie is a reference not to Helmut Newton or Alexander McQueen, but Eric Boman’s photo for the cover of Roxy Music’s Country Life.
This is a movie not only concerned with fashion — Alexander McQueen and Steve Klein are directly nodded to, and actors Bella Heathcoate and Abby Lee are real life models — but with beauty, and what it is to be beautiful: why the endless cattle calls in underwear; the young girls alone with photographers in their forties; why plastic surgery, eating disorders and underage sex are discussed dispassionately as what train you’ll be taking home. All of this is in service of Beauty, which the movie is clearly ambivalent about, because it is, at times in this movie, arresting. Elle Fanning as Jesse, or “the Neon Demon” of the title, is finely calibrated as someone who makes a Faustian bargain to embrace their body as their weapon instead of their vulnerability.
The runway show is presented as a psychedelic satanic pact because, in a lot of ways, it is exactly that. Much has been made of the way that Alexander McQueen treated his runway shows as the final product of his art, as opposed to the clothes themselves. McQueen’s collections Voss and The Highland Rape had many of the common criticisms of a horror director — possibly a depiction and fascination with violence, always against women, shorn from narrative itself and just shown as spectacle. Is that immoral? Is that misogyny in fancy drag? The runway sequence in The Neon Demon is, as a result, a fantasia that links McQueen to the technicolor euphoria of The Red Shoes and Suspiria.
The final act of The Neon Demon starts with full-on necrophilia by the most game actor working, Jena Malone, and escalates to murder, assault, cannibalism, moon rituals and lesbian blood showers. The joy and tension in the early scenes is hammered out into the meat of exploitation cinema. The final scenes, as a model drolly lists reasons why you’re “done” by the time you’re 21, is far more cruel than all of that, however. The lengths these women have gone for beauty has been proven without a doubt, and they are rewarded by appearing in the intense and stressful photoshoot that follows.
Refn stages the final scene in a room with a jagged blue geometric design, like the patterned fish on the walls of Escher Strasse in Argento’s Suspiria. As the scene descends to the floor we see the blue lines form swastikas. The two models vomit body parts onto a carpet surrounded by the icon of aesthetics and beauty over everything. What Refn is saying here may be contradictory and incoherent, but he and his co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham know what they’re playing with and lay it out in the final moments, giving it to the audience to live with. As the Sia song over the closing credits says, it’s your turn to cry.
Refn followed the film with an art directed cover editorial in Vogue and an intricate pornographic photoshoot sequence in the fifth episode of his amazon show Too Old to Die Young. His work felt impacted by making this film.
In the end, Fashion Horror is a sub-sub-subgenre, which makes a distinction between content and style for the purpose of distinction only. Films like Blow Up or Neon Demon arise out of the filmmakers desire to explore an idea, and the riffing to fill out a genre that can bloom into nuanced bodies of work like the slasher or the programmer western, it never quite reaches critical mass. So there are a few films, and there are clones. The lack of financial success of Neon Demon, and the rise of A24-ish “elevated horror” — that phrase doesn’t mean anything at all, by the way — leads us to think we will have to wait for it to have an organic impact on someone.
Fashion, like so much in this world, can be an excuse to have beautiful people in a movie. It can be a strawman for vacuous-ness and vanity as television often is used in movies. All the more valuable are the films that explore and critique the real thing. The fear at the very heart of fashion is that someone always knows something you don’t.