We were so dazzled by the trailer for In Fabric—the latest from retro-thriller specialist Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio); it’s about a fabulous dress that curses its new owner—that we started thinking about other horror movies that take inspiration from the fashion world. It’s a realm that has yielded mostly documentaries, docu-dramas, and romantic comedies, but there are some glamorously gruesome gems in the mix, too.
Despite her troubled past, life’s on the upswing for Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) at the start of this 1977 supernatural thriller. She’s an in-demand model with a portfolio full of commercials and magazine covers, and she’s amassed enough self-confidence to move into her own apartment, even though her lawyer boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) keeps pestering her to marry him.
Unfortunately, her real estate choice turns out to have unforeseen consequences when her suspiciously affordable, fully furnished new spot in a ramshackle Brooklyn brownstone is revealed to be, uh, built over a hellmouth. Along with her mental and physical health, Alison’s glamorous career soon takes a sudden sharp dive—but not before we see her at flashy photo shoots overseen by future legend Jeff Goldblum (whose lines are dubbed over for some reason) and Jerry Orbach, just two instantly recognizable faces in a movie that’s curiously full of them (including Christopher Walken, Burgess Meredith, Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, John Carradine, and more).
Made in 1965, this Italian production from director Domenico Massimo Pupillo imagines that a group of pin-up models and photographers break into an old castle, thinking it’ll be the perfect location for their horror-themed photo shoot. The gothic backdrops are indeed ideal, but the crumbling manse has a grim history involving a sadistic fiend known as “the Crimson Executioner,” complete with a dungeon filled with macabre torture devices that’ve been collecting dust for hundreds of years...until now.
Sadly, for our comely protagonists, the resident caretaker (Mickey Hargitay, a beefy former Mr. Universe) feels deeply connected to the castle’s former owner, and costumes himself like the long-dead killer (whose kit more than slightly resembles that of a pro wrestler)—all the better to start cruelly and creatively picking off his unwanted guests. Bloody Pit of Horror hasn’t aged terribly well, but its goofy premise and staunchly low-budget production values have ensured its status as a camp classic.
This unapologetically sleazy 1987 giallo from Lamberto Bava (son of Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror, who also has a film on this list) tells the lurid tale of Gloria (Serena Grandi), a voluptuous former model who takes over running Pussycat magazine—a publication that specializes in voluptuous models...mostly topless—after her wealthy husband’s tragic death in a speedboat accident. When a mysterious killer, whose surreal POV varies from victim to victim (the face of one woman suddenly transforms into a giant, veiny eyeball; another becomes a bee before she’s murdered by bees), starts executing Gloria’s associates and sending her gory, oddly personalized photos of the bodies, she decides she better get out of the magazine biz before it’s too late.
In between crimes, though, Delirium has some cheesy photo-shoot scenes that are meant to be titillating, and when its actors are actually wearing clothes, there are massive shoulder pads and other 1980s fashion clichés as far as the eye can see (there’s even a murder in a department store). As an added bonus, first-wave supermodel Capucine pops up as Pussycat’s pushy prospective buyer, while Daria Nicolodi (a staple of her then-husband Dario Argento’s films, and also the co-writer of the original Suspiria) plays Gloria’s ultra-efficient assistant.
Not long before he made horror history with Halloween, John Carpenter sold the spec script that formed the basis for this 1978 thriller, though it went through some significant rewrites before it hit the big screen. Directed by Irvin Kershner (yep, the same guy who went on to make The Empire Strikes Back), Eyes of Laura Mars is about a stylish photographer played by Faye Dunaway, whose extravagant photos (which heavily feature fashion models, fur coats, fire, and violence) have caused a stir in the New York City art world.
Unfortunately, something far more sinister than paparazzi has also attached itself to Laura’s notoriety, in the form of a vicious killer who starts targeting her close friends. Even worse, somehow she’s able to psychically “see” the awful crimes happen, as if peering through the murderer’s own eyes. The impossibly chic Dunaway is obviously the main draw here, but the supporting cast is also pretty great, with René Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Raul Julia, Brad Dourif, and Tommy Lee Jones (all impossibly youthful) making memorable appearances.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller follows Thomas (David Hemmings), a fabulously mod fashion photographer, who hits pause on his decadent routine of hanging out with eager models and tooling around in his Rolls-Royce when he becomes convinced he’s accidentally snapped images of a murder in progress. The process of puzzling through what’s lurking in the background of his photo series stirs something in his long-slumbering soul and he suddenly finds new meaning in his superficial life...which turns out to be the movie’s point since the answers he seeks never quite materialize.
In 1981, Brian De Palma directed a remake, Blow Out, with John Travolta playing a sound engineer who accidentally records a suspicious car crash—an entertaining twist, but only the original film endures as an authentic time capsule of Swinging London, an era later mocked by the Austin Powers movies but presented with much more realism here. However, that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of glitz by any means—at one point, Thomas chases after a possible witness/accomplice/mystery woman (Vanessa Redgrave) as she attends a Yardbirds concert, complete with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck performance cameos, and the movie also features appearances by period style icons like Veruschka and Jane Birkin.
Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) directs this bewitching, candy-colored nightmare that delves into the world of models in Los Angeles, where the competition is literally cutthroat (and a whole lot worse). Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a wide-eyed 16-year-old whose cover-girl dreams are soon sidetracked when she falls in with a particularly vicious group of fashionistas who are dangerously obsessed with youth and beauty.
The fact that she’s staying at a seedy motel with an even seedier manager (played by Keanu Reeves, one of few male characters in a mostly female cast) where very strange things tend to happen doesn’t make things any easier—and while you may suspect early on that The Neon Demon is going to take a deeply malevolent turn, Jesse’s ultimate fate ends up putting the “gore” in “phantasmagoria.” It may be the only movie ever made that references Vogue magazine, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Elizabeth Báthory in equal doses.
The scandalous secrets bubbling just below the jewel-box surface at a boutique Italian fashion house spark a murder spree in Mario Bava’s 1964 lushly colorful classic, a movie as stunningly beautiful as it is enduringly influential. Blood and Black Lace inspired not just the countless giallo films that followed in its wake, but basically any movie with a masked killer and a mounting body count.
It begins on a dark and stormy night with the brutal murder of one of Christian Haute Couture’s models, a woman with so much dirt on everyone that multiple characters look like they’re about to explode when her diary suddenly turns up right before the latest fashion show. As the victims start piling up—in the film’s most brutal scene, a young woman’s face is pushed into a burning-hot furnace grate—the police try to puzzle out the whodunnit as the movie slowly reveals the mechanics of its mad crimes, building to a twist ending that other thrillers have been stealing ever since.
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