For all the nasty, horrible parts of author H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy, there’s no denying the lasting impression his stories have made on tales of occult and horror. Using the unknown elements of the natural and spiritual worlds, colliding them together to titillate and terrify, continues to inspire creatives of all kinds with their dark delights. The latest such project is director Joe Lynch’s Suitable Flesh, having its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2023, written by Re-Animator scribe Dennis Paoli and adapted from Lovecraft’s 1933 short story The Thing on the Doorstep. Adjusted for the modern era, Lynch’s film mixes psychological terror and body horror with a dab of eroticism, asking questions about identity, desire, and the vulnerabilities of the flesh.
Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham) runs a successful private practice, has a loving husband, and, generally speaking, a wonderful life. All of this comes crashing down when Asa Waite (Judah Lewis) appears at her office begging for help as he has had an out of body experience and is terrified it’s something else. At first, Dr. Derby speaks to Asa with the usual clinical approach of her training, until she sees for herself what Asa’s been terrified of. In that moment, rather than run away, her mistake is to move toward it, unaware that her curiosity may be the end of everything she loves.
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re not aware that Flesh is an adaptation, then the heavy reliance on tropes to get the ball rolling may grate. The biggest piece being that Graham’s (Horns) Derby isn’t just our protagonist, she’s also the narrator. The use of narration is often seen as a short cut, a method filmmakers use circumvent showing something happening so that they can get to something else faster, whether it’s an idea or a moment. (See: individual controversy over Blade Runner cuts.) Here, however, it’s not only a pull directly from the source material (though it’s from the perspective of the character Daniel Upton whom screen legend Barbara Crampton plays), but it slowly starts to serve as a bridge between concepts introduced within the film. Additionally, the narration allows the audience to better understand the psychological turmoil of Derby, once entranced into the otherworldly trap she falls into, as we are invited into her thoughts directly through these vocal cues.
Those more familiar with The Thing on the Doorstep will no doubt recognize the places in which Paoli’s adaptation takes its liberties, and I think it’s fair to say that they are improvements. If that seems too far a stretch, then perhaps it’s better to think of them as modern perspectives. For one, Derby is now made the focal point of the film, having swapped places with Upton as narrator, thereby creating a sense of autonomy and control, even as it slips away from her. For two, this allows a playfulness to exist as the script uses Lovecraftian aspects to explore sexual fluidity, gender roles, and the secrets we keep, even from the closest of us. (To dive into these aspects more deeply would delve into spoiler territory, so that’ll keep for now.) Personally, I’m amused by the inclusion of character names such as Giovannie Cruz’s Officer Huxley and a patient named Crawley as the former may be a reference to author/philosopher and Lovecraft contemporary Aldous Huxley and the latter a play on occultist Aleister Crowley. Things like this support the notion that Lynch and Paoli are well-versed in the sandbox they’re building in, allowing deference where possible and rejection as necessary. Knowing Lovecraft’s personal racist beliefs, it’s a little uncomfortable that there’s only one Black character in the film, even for Massachusetts where the film is set, though given Lynch’s other works, that’s more likely happenstance than a suggestion of the filmmaker’s own beliefs.
The deference comes aplenty with a balanced mix of character work, gag applications, cinematography, and editing to disarm the audience. Graham and Lewis (The Babysitter) have the unwieldy task of double-duty as each portray their main characters, as well as whatever it is that seeks to destroy them. What *it* is isn’t clearly identified in the film and the script does a solid job of walking the line of skepticism before it goes full-tilt batshit, giving the audience just enough to understand, even if they can’t name it. These two actors, however, have the unenviable task of changing everything about who their central characters are and both do so with seemingly apparent ease, the transformation presented through their performances and amplified by dizzying cinematography and quick cuts. There’re also some cheekiness to the edits as there are at least three times when the fade from one scene to another zeroes in on an object to ensure that the audience notices something the film thinks is important. On the one hand, tactics like this support the throwback vibe aspects of Flesh possess, as if the story isn’t of the modern era but from the ‘70s or ‘80s. It allows for some lightness and levity in an otherwise slow-building chiller. On the other, it’s a move which suggests the audience is going to miss something if not for the use of the editing tool, even though the thing that is focused upon is evident to anyone paying attention (as they should be if they press “play”).
Though the film is mostly a two-hander between Graham and Lewis, the supporting performances from Bruce Davison (X-Men) as Asa’s father, Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do!) as Elizabeth’s husband, and Crampton (Re-Animator/Jakob’s Wife) do a lot with their more limited screen time so that we are either disquieted by or for their respective characters. In a film where life and death are constantly on the line, where the soul can exist inside a corpse when the heart stops beating, caring about the characters is the only way that we end up on the edge of our seat. Credit to the cast and Paoli for presenting the narrative in such a way that we do.
If you’re fortunate enough to attend the world premiere during Tribeca, be advised that there is a post-screening Q&A and I, for one, wish I could be there. I have a great many questions regarding Lynch’s personal intent behind the adaptation, about the choices made to gender-flip the central characters, to include references to the originals, and if the lack of specificity regarding the Lovecraftian elements is intentional as a way to build tension related to the unknown, to poke fun at the occult, or to prevent pulled focus from the drama of Derby’s plight. Though a wider release hasn’t been announced, with the film produced in part by both Shudder and RLJE Films, one can at least expect an appearance on the streamer and a physical release sometime down the line.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
In theaters and everywhere you rent movies October 27th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.