Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: SUITABLE FLESH is What Dreams Emanating from the Tombs of R’lyeh Are Made Of

[Editor’s Note: This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being discussed here wouldn’t exist.]

“Joe Lynch is no Stuart Gordon!” That’s what many horror fans (yours truly included) have been shouting to the heavens since it was announced that the Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007) and Mayhem (2017) director was helming the late master of horror and his frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli’s long-unproduced adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1933 short story, The Thing On the Doorstep. Famous for their work together on Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, and Dagon, finding a suitable fit to bring the project to the screen after decades of false starts and the death of the maestro would seem a fool’s errand, but Barbara Crampton, the actor most associated with Gordon’s body of work, was up to the task. She hand-picked Lynch, and right she was to do so, because, wonder of wonders Suitable Flesh is less suitable than it is superlative: a playful, gleefully horny Lovecraftian thriller that would make the dear departed director proud. 

Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) stars as a Dr. Elizabeth Derby, psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with one of her patients, Asa (Judah Lewis) when he barges into her office one evening claiming that his elderly, unwell father (Bruce Davidson) “wants” his body. After the young man suffers what appears to be a seizure and a personality shift, Elizabeth initially chalks it up to dissociative identity disorder, but as events unfold and her erotic interest peaks, she becomes convinced that perhaps there’s something to Asa’s story after all.

The star of Netflix’s The Babysitter and its sequel, Lewis is all grown up here and giving full-blown demon twink in a performance that drips with delicious, sexy, lascivious menace. Crampton does solid work (and looks incredible) as Derby’s vaping, no-nonsense bestie, but the movie belongs to Heather Graham who goes for broke in a performance that grows cleverer and more maniacal as the film unfolds. She’s fully committed to the material and it feels like a spiritual extension of the kinky/creepy magic Crampton and Gordon themselves were conjuring in the 1980s. 

Suitable Flesh has a cut-rate quality that gives it a flat, Lifetime movie vibe, but it becomes clear that this is fully intention as Lynch continually upsets the familiarity of what on the surface looks like a square, middlebrow, TV-friendly tale of white ladies in crisis with camera tricks, weird spells, and perverse fucking. The approach feels like it bridges the gap between Gordon’s own effects-laden pre-millennium heyday and his 2000s DTV sicko drama period (Stuck, King of the Ants), finding the perfect tonal/stylistic marriage of both while also inviting comparisons to David Lynch or Brian DePalma in presenting a drab Americana under siege by forces beyond human understanding and upset by erotic desires unloosed like a great flood. 

The film also boasts a refined camp sensibility; Lynch (who himself suggested changing the story’s lead from male to female) clearly sees the entertainment value of two iconic blonds trading barbs and fisticuffs, and Suitable Flesh is sure to be a perennial fave with queer audiences not just for that reason but also its frank and easy attitude towards the pliability of gender and sexual attraction. 

A “Lovecraft movie” and a “Lovecraft movie by Stuart Gordon” are two vastly different things, and though there’s no replacing the late master, Joe Lynch seriously captures that weird, ineffable something that Gordon and Paoli always brought to the material and somehow makes it look easy. With an absolute ripper of a performance from Heather Graham, a wicked sense of humor, and a sexually frank and unhinged attitude from an age of horror filmmaking long past, Suitable Flesh is just what dreams emanating from the tombs of R’lyeh are made of.

Movie Score: 4/5

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