Fantastic Fest Review: Suitable Flesh
Skinamax and body-swapping horror slide into each other
By Richard Whittaker,
3:35PM, Wed. Sep. 27, 2023
Do you remember good old-fashioned American sleaze? Joe Lynch does.
Not just that, but Lynch remembers that one of the absolute masters of sweaty innuendo and lascivious excess was also a master of horror: Stuart Gordon. While Gordon may be best remembered for the gore that oozed out of every frame of Re-Animator, there was an equal amount of subversive sexuality at play, unbound by common conceptions of beauty. Take From Beyond, in which scientists play with dimensions while secretly searching for truly cosmic orgasms; or Dagon, his adaptation of two H.P. Lovecraft works (short story "Dagon" and novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth), in which the protagonist wrangles with his arousal around gills and fins.
Lynch doesn't dance with that kind of interspecies extremity in Suitable Flesh, but he also doesn't shy away from the feverish raunchiness that lurked just under the surface – or under revealing leather lingerie – of Gordon's work. That's only fitting, since Lynch is literally picking up where Gordon left off: by bringing one of his unproduced projects, scripted by Gordon's longtime collaborator Dennis Paoli, to the screen.
In the case of Suitable Flesh, it's a loose but still loyal adaptation of another Lovecraft story, 1933's "The Thing at the Doorstep." There have been multiple adaptations before, most emphasizing the gothic aspects of the tale of body-swapping horror, but none so unrelentingly horny, starting with the casting of two actors with pivotal roles in the maturation of film audiences of certain ages: Boogie Nights' Rollergirl herself, Heather Graham, and the wearer of those infamous leather undergarments, Barbara Crampton.
But sex is the last thing on anyone's mind when they're first introduced, as clinical psychiatrist Dr. Daniella Upton (Crampton) is off to meet her newest and most dangerous patient: her old friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Graham), locked up for not just a hideous murder but extensive abuse of a corpse. In a Gordon-esque flashback, she explains exactly what happened, and how it involves her own patient, Asa Waite (Judah Lewis) and his conviction that his decrepit and degenerate daddy, Ephraim (Bruce Davison), is trying to steal his body.
That Stuart Gordon saucy twist comes in with the idea of using someone's flesh for your own pleasures, and while Elizabeth finds her heart melting for poor Asa, her compassion turns to passion whenever he seems to undergo a personality change and ... well, let's just say the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Psychologists might not approve of their sessions on (and under and up against) the couch.
For most of its run, the greatest volume of body fluid in Suitable Flesh is definitely sweat, as Elizabeth violates her Hippocratic oath on her scratchy office carpet with Asa, then goes home to her perpetually shirtless husband, played by Johnathon Schaech (who is clearly having a blast as a silver fox himbo). Crampton, who worked three times with Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak) leaps back into the lascivious fray with wild abandon, but it's Graham who really gets to scratch the story's freaky itch. And that's complicated by the body-swap plot: After all, this is a story where just about everybody ends up inside of everyone else (pun most definitely intended) as sorcery means that multiple actors are taking on and sharing multiple parts. This means an incredible interplay between Graham and Lewis, which has to be by turns tender, terrifying, and randy.
And it's a particular kind of sexy that Lynch is going for, the salacious and sultry sensuality of the Eighties, complete with constant sax solos. Honestly, this may be the only horror film that invokes The Red Shoe Diaries and Cthulhu equally. And that's important because, as much as Lynch makes no bones about continuing Gordon's lecherous legacy, it's not just an imitation. This is a Joe Lynch film, with his own crafty sense of humor, and his taste in gore - don't worry, that sweat turns to blood pretty quickly, and the final act is the equal in carnage of the anything-in-his-office madness explosion of Mayhem.
Would Gordon approve? One would like to think yes, and not just because of the suitably grisly and titillating mixture of sex and violence, but because Lynch made a horror-sex-comedy for adults, one in which sexuality – especially the sexuality of women in their fifties and sixties – isn't something of which to be afraid. Now that's hot.
Fantastic Fest Screenings
Thu., Sept. 28, 4:55pm
A version of this review ran as part of our Tribeca Film Festival coverage.