Suitable Flesh


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Suitable Flesh
"It feels like a natural successor to Gordon’s work, and a film of which he would have been proud." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Three years after the death of much admired director and horror icon Stuart Gordon, one of the scripts which he had been working on, penned by his longtime collaborator Dennis Paoli, has finally made it to the big screen. It has done so thanks to director Joe Lynch, whom Gordon himself named as one of the heirs apparent, and with Barbara Crampton as a producer and star – neatly tying it back into the Arkham setting. There are numerous little details and references here which will thrill fans, but you don’t have to be an initiate to enjoy it. You don’t even need to be a horror fan, as comedy dominates for much of the running time – although when Lynch does decide to get gory, he really delivers.

Though not the most famous, The Thing On The Doorstep is one of HP Lovecraft’s most complex and satisfying stories, a body swapping horror tale full of unease about sex, gender and sexuality which may have owed something to the author’s feelings about his troubled marriage. It has been adapted for the screen on several occasions, but Paoli is perhaps the first screenwriter to have understood it in those terms, and his work is ably served by Lynch, not least because the director came up with the idea of changing the genders of the main characters. This is more than just a rebuke to one original character’s insistence that male minds are superior to those of women. It allows Lynch to make some sharper observations, and to celebrate the charisma and sexual presence of two actresses in their fifties and sixties.

One of these, of course, is Crampton, who has only got sexier with age. She plays Doctor Daniela Upton, a psychiatrist working at Miskatonic University Hospital – which is both conceptually and physically the same place which fans will remember from Re-Animator. We even begin in a room just off the same corridor, which leads to the (fictional) morgue, as a body is brought in for the coroner to examine whilst Daniela is chatting to him. She then goes off to a padded cell to speak with Elizabeth Derby (a particularly wild-eyed Heather Graham), who demands to know about the condition of the aforesaid body and begs for it to be immediately cremated. “You don’t understand!” she insists. “If he does it a third time, it’ll be permanent.”

The principal part of the story, as in the original, is told in flashback, though this time around Derby is the narrator. A close friend and colleague of Upton’s (at least prior to her detention), she tells her about a strange encounter with Asa (Judah Lewis), a desperate young patient who seemed to have an unusually pronounced case of Multiple Personality Disorder accompanied by fitting. A patient with whom she crossed a line – and experienced something deeply disconcerting which now has her afraid for her life.

Graham has had a tough time in the business, her early success in the likes of Twin Peaks and Boogie Nights overshadowed by unfortunate choices like 2002’s Killing Me Softly, her willingness to engage with sexual material used to dismiss her acting talent. This is the perfect comeback role, allowing her to take control of the sexual narrative, at least in one context, whilst demonstrating her considerable abilities in a role which encompasses extremes of both the comedic and the tragic. She engages easily with the Eighties style which Lynch is consciously evoking (characters have mobile phones but they are also subject to saxophone solos whilst between the sheets), which it is sadly evident that some younger critics have not understood. Nevertheless, she’s a lot of fun, and one hopes that this will lead to a fresh set of opportunities for her.

Where acting is concerned, credit must also go to Lewis for some truly extraordinary work. It’s never easy for a young actor to play someone significantly older than himself, let alone several such someones. Not only is he able to switch registers in an instant, but he brings a force of personality into play which many actors never achieve. It’s a star-making performance. On top of all that, he holds his nerve well when one of his characters is flirting with women twice or even three times his age.

The older woman, younger man dynamic is balanced by the presence of Johnathon Schaech as Elizabeth’s husband (an Edward, of course), who spends a lot of his time topless and will appeal to a different type of viewer. Lean and muscular, he makes an interesting choice for what is at least in part the role of a damsel in distress. Lynch manages the interplay between these various characters and various personalities with wonderful fluidity, especially in the complicated final scenes.

As a sex comedy, Suitable Flesh is bold and nervy and ebullient all at once, a delightful change from tired old 21st Century irony and self-consciousness. As a horror film, it’s deliciously dark and creepy. It feels like a natural successor to Gordon’s work, and a film of which he would have been proud. Watch it once and you’ll find it hard to get it out of your head.

Suitable Flesh screened as part of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2023
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A psychiatrist becomes obsessed by a young patient who seems to have multiple personalities.
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Director: Joe Lynch

Writer: Dennis Paoli, based on a book by HP Lovecraft

Starring: Heather Graham, Judah Lewis, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Davison, Johnathon Schaech

Year: 2023

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US

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