Tonally speaking, the sublimely messy, moderately silly, extremely gory horror movie Suitable Flesh is all over the place. Some of the violence is deadly serious, and some of it is designed to induce shocked, delighted giggles. It starts out deliberately paced, and doesn’t hit manic speeds until the final act. And that, according to director Joe Lynch, is all entirely intentional.
“Life is not tonally consistent,” he told Polygon at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, shortly after the movie’s Texas premiere. “Stories that derive from our lives are not tonally consistent. I might be having a horror movie of a day when you’re having a romantic comedy of a day. We’re still living in the same world. That’s what excited me about this.”
“Tonally inconsistent” is usually a negative critique of a film, but for Suitable Flesh, the shifts come with the territory. Heavily modeled after the similar horror-to-comedy-to-horror shifts in Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft-based horror classics Re-Animator and From Beyond — and written by the same screenwriter, Dennis Paoli — Lynch’s film is meant to tap into, and even push beyond, a particular giddy breed of cult horror movies that have largely fallen out of favor in a move toward immersive horror realism.
“I’ve always had a little Stuart Gordon on my shoulder, going, Hey, push that further! or Maybe too much?” Lynch said. “That was always permeating my head. Whenever I was coming up with an idea, or being slavish to the script, it was always there in the background.”
[Ed. note: Mild spoilers ahead for one of the movie’s more over-the-top kill scenes.]
That “push it further” ethos gets particularly strong during a late-film chase sequence involving protagonist Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham), a psychiatrist trying to protect herself from an occult body-stealer who’s proved extremely difficult to kill. At one point, she hops in her vehicle, sees her tormentor behind her in the backup camera, puts the car in reverse, and guns the engine. The audience only sees the antagonist through that backup camera as the car smashes into him.
Then she pulls forward… and reverses, hitting him again. And again. It’s grisly, but the way Lynch extends it from desperation move into repetition gag makes it a real laugh-out-loud moment.
“The Smashening, as we called it,” he said, when asked how that sequence came together. “This is the thing I love about fellow horror directors — we always have that perfect kill in our back pocket, where we go, God, I would love to employ this idea.”
Lynch says the reverse-cam moment has been with him since he bought a car with one back in 2007. “I was at the dealership, I’m sitting in the back, the dealer is giving me a test drive, and I’m looking at the backup cam, thinking, I would love to kill someone with this. How cool would that be? […] I held that in my back pocket for over a decade, praying that no one would ever use it, and no one did. Or at least none that I saw. And I watch a lot of movies.”
Lynch pushed to keep the scene as one unbroken take, in spite of suggestions that he should cut back to the movie’s antagonist for response shots. “I had just finished Wrong Turn 2,” he explained. “And I got really jazzed over seeing the audience reaction to one of that movie’s kill moments, a longer take. In Wrong Turn 2, I split someone in half, and their intestines fall out of their genitals, and then the two halves of the body get dragged away, in a very long take. Feeling the audience react, and then react again and then react again — it isn’t fast. It lingers. There was something about that. I couldn’t cut away if I wanted to do that backup-cam shot. Some of the producers were like, You can cut away, come on, you can cut. I’m like, No, you have to let that sit there, and you got to watch it all happen in real time.”
Lynch describes the process of getting the shot as a pretty comical affair that involved a lot of screaming. “I had to have our star in the shot. I did not have the money for stunt people, and I wasn’t gonna be able to grab Heather’s face with CG and stick it on someone. It had to be Heather behind the wheel. And she’s a New Yorker — she’s like, ‘I know how to drive, but not well. So as long as you walk me through everything…’ So there’s behind-the-scenes footage of me standing off-camera, going ‘BACK UP! GO FORWARD! STOP! BACK UP! GO FORWARD AGAIN!’ I’m screaming it, and everyone’s like, What the fuck is going on? It took us about four takes to get that right. On the fourth take, the camera broke. She was hitting it that hard.”
The footage seen within the dashcam, on the other hand, was shot on a different day. “I would take the unfortunate person that had to be in that moment, and use a GoPro camera and shove it into their face, then pull it out again. It was a whole process,” Lynch says. But once we put that all together, with the sound effects and everything, it actually played. It is the best feeling in the world to be in an audience and hear them go, Ohhhh, and then Oh my God, again? And then Jesus Christ, oh man!”
For Lynch, the extremity of sequences like that reverse-cam attack were the primary reason the opening of the movie had to have a completely different tone. “I hate the term ‘slow burn,’” he said. “But I think you need to earn that last third of the movie. If we had tried to use that kind of tempo all the way through, the audience would have been exhausted.
“I think these days with film, people don’t want to invest as much. They like short-form content, they want the ‘30 seconds, then someone gets kicked in the nuts’ action. And it’s like, Exposition? Out the door. Character development? Meh, I don’t need it. We wanted it to feel a little more classical. And some people really dig that escalating ride up the roller coaster before you plummet down.”
That may leave viewers a little baffled during the opening character-building and psychoanalytic sequences in Suitable Flesh, especially if they come in expecting wall-to-wall violence. “I knew I had to build up to that,” Lynch said. “It felt more gratifying. If we had a lot of crazy slaughter and gore and stuff like that early on, I don’t think that would have worked as well. I’m very pleased we pulled it off — it seems like people are digging it. I swear to God, the best thing I can think of is if someone gets in their car and sees their backup camera and thinks of that moment, I’ve done my job.”