Movies inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing are often so oppressive that they can be exhausting. Lovecraft’s most central theme (apart from the virulent racism and all) was the idea that we live in a howling, empty void — a cosmos that’s indifferent to humanity at absolute best, and so inimical at worst that even a glimpse at the true horrors of the universe would drive most people insane.
And yet a handful of filmmakers have found the wry humor in Lovecraft’s stories — sometimes for satirical purposes, but sometimes without losing the sense of cosmic horror at the heart of his work. Chief among the Lovecraft horror-comedy directors is Stuart Gordon, whose Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon all lend a certain amount of goofiness to Lovecraftian horror. With the gleefully gory new movie Suitable Flesh, Mayhem and Knights of Badassdom director Joe Lynch is openly operating in Stuart Gordon mode. He has the best assistance possible: screenwriter Dennis Paoli, who wrote all three of those Gordon films, and is in his element here, loosely adapting Lovecraft’s 1937 short story “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
It’d be easy for impatient streamers who’ve never seen From Beyond in particular to miss the tone Lynch and Paoli are going for with Suitable Flesh. They might turn it off early, thinking it looks too cheap, flat, and glossy to feel convincing, that the acting is too broad, or that the emotions on display feel too fervent. Those are all no-nos in an era of oppressively realistic horror settings. But early quitters will miss out; by the time Suitable Flesh hits its peak and fully reveals its creators’ intentions, it’s a wild bacchanalia of violence, over-the-top humor, and authentic cosmic terror.
Heather Graham stars as Elizabeth Derby, a psychiatrist navigating the usual ailment of psychiatrists in horror movies. Faced with events the average horror movie character would quickly accept as supernatural, if only to move the story forward, Elizabeth keeps looking for rational psychological explanations. And even when she starts to accept that she can’t rationally explain the things she’s experiencing, her colleagues keep trying to pathologize her, slapping reductive scientific labels on every earth-shattering event she experiences. (See also: Rose Cotter in Smile, a much less funny, much less Lovecraftian horror movie that’d still make for a perfect double bill with Suitable Flesh.)
Elizabeth’s latest patient, Asa (Judah Lewis), is an emotionally ragged young man who’s frantic to get someone to listen to him, even if most of what he’s saying doesn’t make sense. His attempts to explain his anxieties are woefully unclear: When he talks about his father, Ephraim (Bruce Davison), trying to take his body, he could be talking about anything from sexual molestation to paranoid schizophrenic delusion. Elizabeth initially assumes the latter, especially after seeing Asa undergo a surprisingly violent process that winds up with him adopting a completely different personality. She immediately decides he’s suffering from dissociative identity disorder — which in no way limits her completely inappropriate attraction to him.
What follows between them starts out as half body-snatcher horror, half ludicrous erotic thriller, complete with a panting Cinemax-era softcore sex scene that’s a little too ridiculous even for something openly meant as satire. But the balance shifts sharply toward the body-snatcher end when Ephraim decides he wouldn’t mind claiming Elizabeth’s body in multiple ways. When Elizabeth finds out that Asa’s father really can use occult powers to force body swaps — the first few of them temporary, leading up to a permanent one — she only has a few chances to stop him before she ends up trapped in someone else’s far-less-suitable flesh.
Suitable Flesh is an intensely messy movie. It moves breathlessly from solidly plotted psychological thriller to almost Army of Darkness levels of slapstick violence — including a scene involving a van’s backup camera that’s a must-see for every true fan of grisly horror movie effects. Its broadest structure is classic horror, as Elizabeth tries to overcome her own doubts about what she’s experiencing, then tries to convince other people that she isn’t just having a psychotic break. And the entire time, she’s facing a confident, competent foe who knows far more than she does, and is almost always three steps ahead of her. (Purely in terms of plotting, this film would also make a solid double feature with the original Nightmare on Elm Street.) But on a scene-for-scene basis, it’s all over the place tonally, as Lynch and Paoli keep shifting their intentions.
Suitable Flesh is a “yes, and” movie that just keeps taking on new baggage. It’s a cosmic horror movie that respects the intentions and anxieties in Lovecraft’s “Thing on the Doorstep.” It’s a satire of that classic age of steamy potboiler erotic dramas, at least for a few scenes. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller between two unmatched adversaries. It’s a giddy chase movie that pushes its physical confrontations far enough that even dedicated gorehounds may feel like they’re watching the horror-movie equivalent of Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes in The Simpsons. And it’s an occult mystery with a little ’80s throwback style and a little for-the-fandom nodding to Lovecraft references. (“Filmed in Cthuluscope,” a label on the film proudly declares.)
It’s a lot to take in, and it doesn’t always work together, the way a more tonally consistent and coherent movie would. The shifts don’t always serve Graham well, either — it’s sometimes hard to buy her as the same character from scene to scene, because those scenes put her in such different mental and emotional places, some of which she’s better equipped for as an actor than others.
All of that stops mattering by the final climax, which locks in on that “serious situation, slightly silly execution” that serves Re-Animator and From Beyond so well. For a movie with such a cluttered, kitchen-sink ramp-up, Suitable Flesh charges to a memorable conclusion that’s perfect for celebratory group viewing, whether at the local multiplex with other die-hard horror fans seeking a seasonal thrill, or at home with a group of friends and a stack of Stuart Gordon DVDs as follow-up.
Lynch and Paoli are openly aiming this one at audiences who love Lovecraft-derived work, but don’t take him so seriously that they need to come away from every Lovecraft movie feeling depressed and oppressed. And they’re purposefully pouring this one out for every Stuart Gordon fan who worried no one else would ever make movies quite like he did. His legacy is in good hands.