Wednesday, November 1, 2023

An obscene and zestful irony


Directed by Joe Lynch
Written by Dennis Paoli (based on the story "The Thing On the Doorstep" by H.P. Lovecraft)

Spoilers: moderate

Suitable Flesh
 is an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, and I will come back to that momentarily, because despite everything, I'm genuinely struggling to think of a more faithful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that's any good and isn't a no-budget fan-film, which should indicate how faithful H.P. Lovecraft adaptations usually are, which is to say, not very; and while that definitely means that I'd be grading that aspect of this film on a curve, when I say "it's faithful," I do earnestly mean that in something like absolute terms.  But what it is, more proximately, and what its makers want you to identify it as, is The Last Stuart Gordon Film, and that's pretty impressive, considering that Gordon, the polymath film, television, and stage director, passed away three years ago, and as far as I can tell had literally nothing to do with this movie besides Gordon's cinematic legacy being inextricably intertwined with, and maybe even unfairly dominated by, his own deeply idiosyncratic, semi-faithful adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft.  Nevertheless it's quite possible (and perhaps interviews, etc., have clarified this) that Gordon might have at least gotten the ball rolling here: Suitable Flesh was written by Dennis Paoli, a screenwriter whose association with Gordon went back more than three decades at the time of Gordon's death, and who had, amongst other things, worked with him on all four of his Lovecrafts for the big and small screens, starting with Re-Animator, all the way back in 1985, and I suppose that even if Suitable Flesh wasn't Gordon's "idea" in any strict sense, we can be reasonably confident that at some point while they were batting around Lovecraft stories for potential projects, Gordon and Paoli at least discussed "The Thing On the Doorstep" as an option.

So even if Gordon's contribution was as minimal as "what if Lovecraft's victim was a babe, who fucked?", well, that's kind of a "story by" credit right there, even if all director Joe Lynch gave him was a dedication.  Meanwhile, we have Barbara Crampton producing this thing, as well as co-starring, and that's another connection to Gordon, likewise going all the way back to Re-Animator; and as for only co-starring, I couldn't say if Crampton inaccurately thinks that she's aged out of babedom, or she simply holds the respectable belief that it's inappropriate for a producer to simulate fucking in their own movie, and while this isn't the kind of impolite question I'd ever expect any interview, etc., to clarify, I think it'd be keeping to the spirit of Gordon's horniness if one admitted this also would've been neat.  That Gordonian horniness, anyway, is certainly the animating force of Suitable Flesh, in all the ways that horniness is altogether absent from Lovecraft, to the extent that I'm not sure an alien with no knowledge of human biology but who could decipher English text would be able to put up more than the most rudimentary and tentative hypotheses about human coupling from "The Thing On the Doorstep," which is already one of the comparatively few Lovecraft stories where wives (or women, generally) exist in any significant way at all.

"We're going to make it about sex" is a time-honored Lovecraft cinema tradition, going back well beyond Gordonback to Daniel Haller's "what if Wilbur Whateley was a babe, who fucked?" 1970 reinterpretation of "The Dunwich Horror"and, remarkably, considering the asexuality of the author and his works, this new emphasis hasn't always meant unfaithful adaptation.  Perhaps if he weren't a prudish product of Victorian New England to boot, Lovecraft might agree that it was always a natural-enough strategy to make his gross horrors even grosser.  But I started out by stating that Suitable Flesh was astoundingly faithful, for a Lovecraft film.  The title itself sounds like it must be a Lovecraftian phrase, but damned if I can source it; it is not, for sure, in "The Thing On the Doorstep," nor any of his other body-swap horrors, which when you start tallying them, turns out to have been one of his favorite tropes.  And there is the matter of the gender-swapping of itsI used the word "victim" before, but said victim is elevated to "protagonist" hereEdward Derby, now Elizabeth  (Heather Graham).  And, obviously, this is principally a venue for Gordonian prurience, though it fits in neatly alongside the gender swap that is in fact already in Lovecraft's story, which is one way you can tell Lovecraft wasn't remotely too sexy for his shirt (another way is just reading interviews with his wife Sonia Greene), in that "Doorstep" is so willfully avoidant of the various sexual and gender questions it raises.  The main exception, I suppose, is the part where the "female" antagonist repeatedly complains about not having a man's brain, which has access to far greater cosmic powers than a woman's.  Oh, Howard Phillips.  (I often find myself wondering, had his guts not killed him, if Lovecraft's mid-life liberalization would have continued apace into the post-war era.  It's nice to think so, but one has one's doubts.)

I like "Doorstep" anywayit's a high mid-tier Mythos story, and in most respects I prefer it to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," to which it's a loosely-associated prequel (and which Gordon adapted as Dagon, by an enormous margin his worst Lovecraft feature)and it strikes me, at least, as a fairly salient fact that despite existing as an idea as early as 1928, and only being published in 1937, it was written in or around the final months of the dissolution of Lovecraft's marriage to Greene in 1933.  The dissolution was more-or-less amicable, and Lovecraft did not actually have a domineering wife who could be compared to "Doorstep's" Asenath Waite, an Innsmouth fish-person who's probably actually a suit being worn by her warlock fatherGreene was rather the opposite of "domineering," though maybe Lovecraft, a deeply unsuccessful author living off of an allowance provided by his wife, would have had different subjective emotions about itbut it's hard not to notice that the personal details of poor Edward Derby involve a funhouse-mirror, somewhat wish-fulfilling reflection of Lovecraft's own biography, and that Edward's marriage also arrives at an ignominious end.  This self-reflection, and the attendant characterizations, don't really play into Suitable Flesh, which likewise does so many of the usual things Lovecraft cinema does to fuck Lovecraft upit sure as anything ain't set in the 1920sbut given that "Doorstep" has always seemed to me to be one of Lovecraft's harder-to-adapt stories, it comes off like an extraordinarily diligent rework of the material, salvaging everything possible for the story Paoli and Lynch wanted to tell.  Like a lot of Lovecraft horror, "Doorstep" is basically epistolary, and its plot is related by way of a last statement from a narrator, Daniel Upton, who's held at arm's-length from that plot till the end.  But despite resituating itself at the center of the horrific action, Suitable Flesh even manages something akin to that structure, and doubles down on the cosmic horror hopelessness of it; plus, even in shockingly small details, it finds analogues to Lovecraft's text, like the way that the old, but strained, homosocial friendship of the story and the old, but strained, homosocial friendship of the film, which winds up being essential to identifying the unrecognizable victim of eldritch lore in both, are respectively demonstrated by a cutesy symbol for those relationships (here a goofy little secret handshake, there a goofy little secret doorknock).

So: in roughly 2023, psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Derby has gotten herself thrown into a padded cell under the care of her friend and colleague, Dr. Daniella Upton (Crampton), for the extraordinarily brutal slaying of young Asa Waite (Judah Lewis).  There's little question that Elizabeth has gone bonkersshe keeps claiming that the spirit in Asa is going to take over her body, just like it jumped from Asa's father Ephraim (Bruce Davison) to Asa, in a chain going back who knows how long.  Daniella is not in a position to believe thiseverything points instead to Elizabeth having begun a startlingly unethical relationship with a patient in the midst of some kind of breakdown on her part, and then ending that relationship with extreme violencebut Elizabeth invokes their friendship, and Daniella consents to listen to Elizabeth's tale, which begins one day at Elizabeth's office at Miskatonic University, when Asa walked in her door.

Asa has sought Elizabeth out for her published expertise on out-of-body experiences, claiming that he's suffering from them himself; in the very midst of explaining this, and raving that his father's to blame, he seems to have one of these experiences, and suddenly Asa's paranoid rantings are replaced by the rough remarks of a grizzled coot.  Elizabeth, of course, identifies this as a multiple personality disorder.  Elizabeth, of course, is wrong.  But she has garnered the attention of old Ephraim, and by means that aren't devoid of Necronomiconical magicbut do seem to be equally rooted in her own unsatisfactory marriage to her unemployed, rather-whiny husband (Johnathon Schaech), who has a name (Edward Derby, in fact, bleh) but with a little reaching could be cheekily described as "what if H.P. Lovecraft were a babe, who fucked?"Ephraim brusquely seduces her with the body of his teen son.  And then he gets curious about what it would be like in hers.  Hijinks absolutely ensue, and by the time Elizabeth's story is through, Daniella has little choice but to believe, though it was probably always too late.

Suitable Flesh
, and this is probably its biggest problem, takes some time to spin up: for what is probably only about fifteen minutes (but feels like thirty) following the attention-grabbing gambit of the framing device, we're essentially just hanging out with Elizabeth, and while you can see why the movie's like this, Elizabeth is just the emptiest vessel for vague mid-life dissatisfaction, in all respects a caricature all the way down to the ugly high-waisted jumpsuit-like business attire they're stuffing Graham into, but not even funny about being dull, so that even as we're getting the promise of the plot to come flung at our faces, Graham's (intentional) stiffness and inhumanity on Elizabeth's behalf winds up making the whole movie around her congeal; it's sloggy enough to notice that Paoli's screenplay's dialogue isn't any good either as far as this first phase goes, and that the man doesn't know a lot of things and refuses to look them up, such as having a therapist invoking "doctor-patient privilege" to another doctor (she means her duty of confidentiality).  Maybe it's just the circumstances that give the character something interesting to do when the time comes, but I might argue that Lewis is better at playing Elizabeth.  The good news is that Graham comes pretty close to justifying her first act choices as the starkest possible contrast to where she heads next, when she gets to play another character, who is the incarnation of sloppy looseness, and from this point on Suitable Flesh doesn't set a foot wrong in any serious way.

The complaint would be, and I'll try to phrase this sensitively, that you can feel the restraints that either the social mores of 2023, our current year, or Graham, the human being, are placing upon Graham, the visual performer, and Suitable Flesh, the sensuous and greasy Gordonian Lovecraft movie; she's game in every crucial respect, but it's hard not to think, "gosh, these characters sure don't like to take their shirts or pants off to have sexual intercourse," or that there's just enough nudity and bouncing and thrusting in the simulated sex to let you know Graham isn't shirking.  (She's not, really, and neither is Schaech, but whether they blinked with Lewis, thirty years and change Graham's junior, I leave to your judgment; there's altogether a jokiness that's predominant over any eroticism.)  I sound like a pornbrained asshole, I realize, but it's really more like the tangible sensation that something's being held back, and if you've seen From Beyond or Re-Animator, they don't feel like anyone's holding back.  If not that, then a mild inability to be completely silly and sexy at the same time.

I hasten to add that this phantom sensation is, still, a very minor thing: sometimes nitpicky analysis gets in the way of just straightforwardly praising something, even when straightforward praise has been earned.  For 2023, this is refreshingly edgy, and Lewis's and Graham's Ephraim are each terrific fun, a sex monster exploring genderfluidity in ways that are nevertheless anchored in the character of a centuries-old magical, ur-masculine soul-rapist, so that now we get nervy, even offensively-nervy stray lines that can feel like nobody was looking anything up in a good way (I suppose I'd implore everyone not to take it seriously, as wondering about H.P. Lovecraft's take on such issues could only generate a null response anyway); and Graham, in particular, is very committed to prosecuting this as hilariously-camp sex horror that eventually does merge into some joyously-camp violent horror, once Lynch offers her and Lewis a delectable prize, one of those vanishingly rare things, a genuinely new kind of kill in a horror flick.  (I believe it to be, anyway, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it is very gnarly and awesome, involving a fancy modern SUV and its rear camera; and let's not grouse that because it's "The Thing On the Doorstep," this "kill" obviously doesn't quite work out.)  The film's presented, I've seen it said, as something like a gross and (extra-)horny telenovela, which makes me rethink how intentional some of Lynch and DP David Matthews's decisions are about how their film looksit's sort of gruesomely color-graded (foliage looks like it's radioactive), which is productive only about half the time, and the other half is just upsetting-looking suburbs.  (The productive half involves a pretty disorientingly great scene in Elizabeth's office, swathed with unaccountable pinks and really destabilized by the blatant compositing of the blue "night sky" outside her window.)  Lynch, anyway, is going for it with everything and the kitchen sink style here, which somewhat manifests as an "I dunno, stuff" kind of thing, but the iris-out scene transitions and the dreamy composites and the sex scenes done via spinning cross-dissolves to different frames in the same shot, all this junk he's throwing at us, ultimately add up to a pretty heady sense of freewheeling chaos.

And the final third is excellent in its frenzy: it offers the worst "Lovecraft adaptation" part of the movie (if it's not this, then it's the awful Necronomicon prop with RPG sourcebook art and alien glyphs in forty-point font); but, to its credit, it is doing so out of a sincere belief that what it's doing is cooler.  It's wrong: "The Thing On the Doorstep" has the thing on the doorstep, and Suitable Flesh doesn't have anything that legitimately disquieting and disgusting.  Even so, it's not wrong by a lot: the related-but-not identical idea they deploy instead islet me be crystal clearstill very objectively cool.  And otherwise, it's going hard as hell, as comedy, as horror, as just plain weird shit (while Crampton herself finally gets something to do in the home stretch), and if you like this kind of thing, though many would not like this kind of thing, I cannot imagine that you would dislike this example of it.

Score: 7/10


  1. I’m not going to lie, at least some of my thoughts while reading this were “How would H.P. Lovecraft think of Heather Graham?” “Evil Sorcerers from the pages of Lovecraft absolutely deserve to meet Conan of Cimmeria in a Dark Alley” and “Conan of Cimmeria, now there’s a man who would appreciate the heck out of the lovely Heather Graham” (Not necessarily in that order).

    Truly, the mind takes strange detours.

    1. He would likely be unable to recognize her as a babe. Which is fine, that's his business. Plus he's long dead.

    2. For a mad moment your sentence looked like complete nonsense - until I realised you were actually talking about the late Mr Lovecraft, rather than one of Fiction’s most famous admirers of the gorgeous female.

      My mind really DOES work in strange ways.