Some types of horror are cosmic; others cautionary. In our day and age, when productions often come with a press kit full of themes, it’s hard to fully appreciate the medium’s potential for instilling the former’s paralyzing and unfathomable fear, removed from the grace of signification. The result, typically, is genre horror, with an emphasis on blood, sex, and ever-creative combinations of fluids; Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, for instance, offers just one such case in point. Where cosmic horror abounds, in contrast, it tends toward the eerie and uncanny, far more than mere viscera or violent jump scares. This distinction between genre horror and Horror proper is a useful one, but it doesn’t always hold, as the latest midnight madness from director Joe Lynch goes to show. Suitable Flesh, ostensibly cribbed from the cosmic, lacks its abyssal charms, and where it ventures into moral and social critique, it similarly fails to elicit anything noteworthy. It’s sleazy, tonal ineptness masquerading as camp.
Adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Thing on the Doorstep” with the genders swapped, and penned by Dennis Paoli (the screenwriter for Stuart Gordon’s 1985 classic Re-Animator), Suitable Flesh chronicles an incident of demonic possession inflected through arcane sorcery and sexual tension. Straddling the fertile interconnections between the medical and the carceral, the film follows one Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham), a psychiatrist with virtually no personal restraint, as she encounters the devil in human — and sensual — form. Asa Waite (Judah Lewis), younger and with an emo look about him, crashes at her office one day, desperate to seek intervention from some supernatural force bent on willing his flesh to do its bidding. Elizabeth, a professional beacon of textbook mediocrity at best and a bungling hack at worst, pays him a house call, only to face grumpy old Ephraim (Bruce Davison), Asa’s father. On Ephraim’s desk is a copy of the Necronomicon; in its drawer lies a knife. Neither bodes well for the self-preserving, but what do you know — Elizabeth’s gotta check on Asa, gotta examine his mind, maybe body too! She gets what she wants, no spoilers there, and after several volleys of soulful exchanges, quite literally, she’s no longer quite herself, but markedly more unhinged. And instead of deciding who gets therapy and who gets institutionalized, she’s the one now locked up in the penitentiary, Asa’s fate befallen her.
This body-switching setup, with strands of Cronenberg’s Possessor, is refreshing insofar as it espouses an almost embarrassingly clear-cut dualism between viral agency and lethargic anatomy. Unfortunately, this agency is woefully undercooked — the entity’s insipid malevolence hardly warrants Lovecraftian grandeur; maybe it just wants to fuck? — and the characters, likewise, are beholden to trashy sitcom stereotyping. Elizabeth, as an extremely (almost wilfully) dense and delusional juror of the Hippocratic oath, stretches the limits of parody and parries almost into misogynistic bimbofication. Her interlocution with her husband, Edward (Johnathon Schaech), is classically asinine porno-dialogue; her colleague and friend, Daniella (Barbara Crampton), fares somewhat better on this front, although she too doesn’t have much of a solid personality besides what’s needed to propel the film’s diabolic shenanigans forward. There is, though, one stylistic flourish in Suitable Flesh that stands out: Elizabeth’s office (and briefly sanctum) is uncannily removed from the humdrum realities of everyday life, and its patently unreal layout and mise-en-scène foreshadow the menace that Asa soon embodies for her. This flourish notwithstanding, Suitable Flesh is otherwise afflicted by its shoddy camerawork and lazy use of bodily seizures as succor for attention, several notches down from the bloody chaos of Lynch’s 2017 Mayhem. The film’s comedic energy quickly evaporates, replaced by formulaic tedium — its register, perhaps, isn’t so suitable after all.
DIRECTOR: Joe Lynch; CAST: Heather Graham, Judah Lewis, Barbara Crampton; DISTRIBUTOR: RLJE Films; IN THEATERS: October 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.