By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Heather Graham, Judah Lewis and Barbara Crampton
Directed by Joe Lynch
Written by Dennis Paoli
It’s hard to believe we’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of Stuart Gordon’s classic RE-ANIMATOR, and there could be no better tribute to the late master of horror and his seminal work than SUITABLE FLESH. Originally developed by Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli under the title THE THING ON THE DOORSTEP, after the H.P. Lovecraft tale it adapts, the new film (a world premiere at the current Tribeca Festival) has undergone significant changes in the interim, most notably a gender-flip of its protagonist, but it feels very much of a piece with both RE-ANIMATOR and Gordon/Paoli’s follow-up feature FROM BEYOND.
This despite the fact that it doesn’t contain many of the tropes familiar from both vintage and recent Lovecraft cinema; while there is an ancient entity causing all the problems, there are no tentacled beasties on view, or ancient rites performed by cultists in robes. As the movie opens, however, we are back at Miskatonic University, deep in the bowels of one of the medical buildings; there’s even a security guard named Mace, apparently the son of the one from RE-ANIMATOR. And in a body bag rests a very mangled corpse being examined by Dr. Daniella Upton and a pathologist, played respectively by Barbara Crampton and Graham Skipper, stars of the 1985 favorite and its musical stage adaptation.
SUITABLE FLESH isn’t just about callbacks to its predecessor, though. Under director Joe Lynch, its emphasis is less on the occult or (for a while) ghastly gore and more on the psychosexual, playing out the full kinky potential of its premise. Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham) is in the midst of analyzing one of her garden-variety patients when she’s visited by Asa Waite (Judah Lewis), a young man in desperate need of help. He seems to be afflicted with multiple-personality disorder, and after an awful seizure he exhibits a far more confident and aggressive demeanor. Something about this side of Asa intrigues Dr. Derby, even turns her on, to the point where she becomes more involved in his case than she should, and her investigation into the root of his condition leads her to Asa’s sick-in-the-head-and-body father Ephraim (Bruce Davison).
The first half hour or so of SUITABLE FLESH is all about establishing and exploring the personalities of its key players, well fleshed out in Paoli’s script and also including Dr. Derby’s husband Edward (Johnathon Schaech), who’s loving but isn’t giving her what she needs in the bedroom. Her world in general–the house she shares with Edward and her office–is all plain white walls and muted colors, until Asa brings a little fire into her life. That becomes literal during a confrontation that also involves some serious bloodshed and has SUITABLE FLESH turning a corner into explicit horror, and it just gets nastier and crazier from there. The aforementioned entity really likes to get under people’s skin, and it’s clearly trisexual–it’ll try anything, and anyone.
That gives Graham a chance to enact a few different personalities of her own as Dr. Derby, and it’s fun and intriguing to watch her transform from level-headed shrink to wanton seductress, and more. Even more impressive is Lewis–yes, the kid from the BABYSITTER movies has grown up fast, and attacks his role(s) with the right balance of desperate innocence and engrossing ferocity. Crampton is as strong a presence as ever as Dr. Upton attempts to both help her friend/colleague and understand what’s happening to her, and Schaech amusingly plays straight man to the volatile changes his spouse is going through. Beyond Skipper (who, in the great tradition of cinematic morgue workers, munches on a sandwich as he cuts into corpses), genre fans will also enjoy appearances by Jonah Ray Rodrigues and Lynch himself as Miskatonic attendants.
As director, Lynch presides over this screen madhouse with an unerring sense of tone, varying from playful flourishes (like old-fashioned iris shots) to serious intensity. The very best setpiece combines those approaches; no details will be revealed here, but it will likely go down as one of the most memorable, if not the most memorable, bursts of violence in the horror year 2023. Lynch’s work pays tribute to Gordon while eschewing slavish homage, and SUITABLE FLESH emerges not as a secondary companion piece to the late director’s work, but a full-blooded addition to the Lovecraft film canon in its own right.