Friday 17 November 2023

Lovecraft on Film:
Suitable Flesh
(Joe Lynch, 2023)

“..the place of utter blasphemy, the unholy pit where the black realm begins and the watcher guards the gate… I saw a shaggoth - it changed shape… I can’t stand it… I won’t stand it… I’ll kill her if she ever sends me there again…” 

- H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’

Though it was apparently drafted as early as 1933, ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ was actually the last of H.P. Lovecraft’s story to see publication during the author’s lifetime, appearing two months before his death, in the January 1937 issue of ‘Weird Tales’.

Employing a relatively direct and unadorned prose style, ‘..Doorstep’ opens not with, say, a dense and baroque description of the stunted trees growing around some rarely used pike off the road in the depths of the Miskatonic valley, but instead with a concise sentence more deliberately designed to draw in the casual pulp magazine reader. (“It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to show by this statement that I am not his murderer.”)

This has led some to speculate that this tale, chronicling decadent writer Edward Pickman Derby’s enslavement and bodily possession by his sinister wife Asenath, may have been concocted with a greater degree of commercial consideration than was usually the case with HPL’s work - possibly reflecting the occasional necessity of actually earning a buck or two from the coffers of his long-suffering editors. Perhaps as a result, it is rarely cited as a favourite by Lovecraft’s more ardent devotees, and remains a bit of an outlier within his canon of core ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ tales.

Nonetheless, I’ve always found it surprising that ‘Thing on the Doorstep’ hasn’t more frequently drawn the attention of those seeking to adapt the Lovecraft’s work for the screen, given that it features the only significant female character in the entirety of his fiction (well, sort of), and that the essence its core body transference plot-line remains pretty cinema-friendly, requiring no on-screen realisation of unearthly locales or sanity-shaking monstrosities.

And verily, the drought of ‘..Doorstep’ adaptations has finally come to an end in grand style this year, as some familiar faces have teamed up with some less familiar ones to bring us ‘Suitable Flesh’ - an acknowledged tribute to / continuation of the legacy of Lovecraftian cinema created by the late Stuart Gordon, and a far from unworthy one, if I’m any judge.

Birthed from a project which was apparently in the early stages of development when Gordon passed away in 2020, ‘..Flesh’ has subsequently been brought to fruition by producer/star Barbara Crampton and director Joe Lynch, and the resulting film benefits greatly from a classically well turned out script by Dennis Paoli (who, for the uninitiated amongst us, wrote all of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations).

Dragging the core conceit of Lovecraft’s tale into the 21st century by means of gender-switching both the narrator and the best friend character who forms the subject of the narration, Paoli has succeeded in whittling the story down into a highly effective, tightly-plotted modern horror movie (just as he did with Reanimator and From Beyond all those years ago), adding additional interest to the narrative by considerably complicating the nature of Dr Elizabeth Derby’s relationship to the unlikely sexual partner who drags her into a hellish predicament of body-switching black magickal terror.

Played by Heather Graham, Dr Derby was formerly an Arkham-based psychoanalyst, but when we meet her here, she is a resident in the dingy padded cell which Miskatonic Medical School have conveniently kept upstairs since the days of Dean Halsey’s incarceration.

Elizabeth’s friend and professional mentor, Dr Daniella Upton (Crampton), boldly steps through the bolted door, intent on subjecting her latest patient to a good ol’ “let’s go through it one more time” talking cure. And so, after Derby has obsessively reiterated her insistence that the corpse of one Asa Waite - a badly mutilated teenage boy currently residing downstairs in the morgue - be cremated immediately, we shift straight into Film Noir-approved flashback mode, taking us back to the day when awkward and inarticulate goth kid Asa (played by Judah Lewis) first burst unannounced through the door of Elizabeth’s private practice office, pleading for help, claiming he was being pursued and persecuted by his father, before suddenly undergoing a sudden, alarming shift in personality.

Patterned more after a thriller or noir than a gothic horror, Paoli’s script renders the assorted twists which follow with a precision that any ‘40s RKO or Columbia screenwriter would have been proud of, threading a wealth of verbal tics and visual motifs (a concentration on hands, the details of the various characters’ smoking habits, etc) through the narrative to help us glide through this potentially confusing yarn in smooth, exposition-free fashion, whilst allowing all the knotty inter-personal relationships to pay off just the way they should come the inevitable, bloody conclusion.

For Lovecraft fans approaching a ‘..Doorstep’ adaptation, the natural fear is that the generous dose of yogsothothery HPL gifted us with on paper could easily be jettisoned, allowing the central body-swap gimmick to be presented as a more easily digestible (and cheaper) science fiction conceit.

As such, I’m glad to report that ‘Suitable Flesh’ keeps at least a bit of Mythos mayhem in the mix, allowing Asa’s father (or at least, the malevolent entity inhabiting him) to remain a black magician and disciple of the Great Old Ones. In fact, his portrayal (by Bruce Davison, when in his ‘original’ body) as a foul-mouthed, narcissistic, lecherous old bastard  proves one of the movie’s highlights - both surprising and genuinely menacing.

(Could Davison’s character perhaps be read as a reflection of the evil wrought upon contemporary American culture by certain other predatory, self-obsessed baby boomers… or is that maybe a stretch too far, do you think?)

That aside though, we’ve still inevitably lost a lot in the transition to the screen. With the constraints of low budget filmmaking being what they are, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that there are no unspeakable rites in unhallowed caverns beneath the Maine woods to be enjoyed here, no - ahem - “shaggoths”, no hints of nameless cults sniffing around the Derby/Waites’ doors, and - sadly - no remnant of the original story’s Innsmouth angle (which effectively makes it a sequel of sorts to ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’).

There are some remaining hints that ‘..Flesh’s script may at one point have retained this connection (eg, some references to Elizabeth’s husband (Jonathan Schaech) catching and cooking fish, and the couple’s use of ocean footage when they're making love), but, unlike the rest of Paoli’s script, these little winks to the Lovecraft-literate viewer never really pay off.

As a result, we lose probably the single nastiest idea from Lovecraft’s story (that of the elderly sorcerer Ephraim Waite fathering his “weak-willed, half-human girl child” purely in order to take possession of her body, leaving her spirit screaming mad in the attic in his mouldering carcass), along with that persistant sense of a wider occult conspiracy which permeates Lovecraft’s mythos tales.

Making up for these absences however, ‘Suitable Flesh’ does give us, well… a hell of a lot of sex, to not put too fine a point on it.

Crowbarring sex and perverse eroticism into Lovecraft’s universe was already of course a key element of all of Paoli and Gordon’s collaborations, but even in the BDSM-drenched ‘From Beyond’, the beast-with-two-backs was never previously foregrounded to quite the extent it is here, as the development of ‘Suitable Flesh’s plot is increasingly driven forward through the multifarious couplings of of the bodies of the four primary characters, together which whichever combinations of the four (or five?) primary intelligences are ‘inhabiting’ them at any given point, as the body-swappin’ ritual initiated by the entity possessing Ephraim Waite becomes wilder and more instantaneous as things progress.

As some commentators have already noted, many of the sex scenes here have a bit of a ‘skinemax’ / cable TV vibe to them, and not necessarily in a good way, as tastefully shot, nudity-free kinky/vanilla encounters remain the order of the day, in spite of the outlandish circumstances surrounding them, making ‘Suitable Flesh’ perhaps the world’s first example of a fully-fledged Lovecraftian erotic thriller. (Fifty Shades of Great Old One, anyone? I’ll get my coat…) (1)

Moving away from such pastel-hued sweatiness however, the climactic body transfer / seduction scene between Heather Graham and Judah Lewis in the study of Waite house proves rather more disquieting - probably the closest ‘Suitable Flesh’ gets to the trademark moments of transgression which Gordon brought to nearly all his films, as the teenaged Asa - inhabited by the spirit formerly residing in his father - uses telepathic ooga-booga to force himself upon Elizabeth Derby, as the corpse of the old man - soon to be decapitated and flambéed - lays dead on the carpet behind them.

It’s a great, show-stopping scene all round, but, the curious disjuncture between ‘erotic thriller’ and ‘cosmic horror’ can still be felt here to some extent, in the sense that, whilst all this was going on, I kept finding myself wishing they’d give it a rest and check out those oh-so-tempting sorcerer’s bookshelves behind them instead. I mean, softcore sex films are ten a penny, but how often do you get a chance to have a good poke around in ‘Unaussprechlichen Kulten’, y’knowwhatImean?

(Admittedly, we do get a pretty good look at Waite’s ‘Necronomicon’ here, but sadly I fear the prop the design team came up with looks a bit naff. Bit of a niche gripe to put it mildly, but I do sometimes wish people could move past the look of the book as defined by ‘The Evil Dead’ and try a different approach…)

Anyway, ‘Suitable Flesh’s closing act, full of gory chaos in Miskatonic Medical School, functions as pure fan service for the ‘Reanimator’ / ‘From Beyond’ crowd... but I’m entirely fine with that, I must say. I especially enjoyed the little in-joke about the security guard sitting outside the morgue being the son of the guy who fulfilled the same function on ‘Reanimator’ , and as mentioned, I’m glad the hospital kept the padded cell upstairs, just for old time’s sake.

As always, Crampton is cool as ice here, and the male members of the cast (Lewis, Davison, Schaech) are all excellent, but really - in acting terms, this movie belongs to Heather Graham. I mean, I must confess, I’ve not exactly been following her career much over the past few decades, but I don’t recall seeing her in a role this full-on, since... I dunno, ‘Boogie Nights’, perhaps? She delivers a totally fearless, multi-faceted and appropriately unhinged performance here anyway, chewing up and spitting out some challenging material with ease, so - respect is due.

Could this be the start of a new career trajectory for her I wonder, joining Nick Cage as a former A-lister battling it out every couple of months in the realm of crazy, mid-budget horror movies? Here’s hoping.

Moving on to Joe Lynch’s direction meanwhile, it would be all too easy to say, “Stuart Gordon could have done this better”, but that would be an unfair comparison. Gordon, after all, was a much-loved horror director with a consistently strong body of work behind him, whereas, at the point I sat down to watch ‘Suitable Flesh’, Lynch was just... some guy, as far as I was concerned.

If I were feeling critical, I could take issue with a few bits of sub-par production design, a few goofy transitions (one ‘ceiling fan wipe’ in particular raised a few unintentional laughs in the cinema), the aforementioned blandness afflicting some of the sex scenes, and a reliance on the kind of modern effects (pointless gliding camera moves, rumbling “woosh/BANG!” sound design timed to the cutting, etc) which one would imagine Gordon, as a filmmaker of an older generation, would possibly not have embraced.

But, these are minor criticisms, and thankfully the film built up such a weight of good feeling elsewhere that I certainly wasn’t feeling critical when I left the screening. Lynch stepped into some big shoes by taking this project on and making it happen, and by-and-large he’s done pretty damn well with it. Good for him.

If not exactly a mind-blowing, game-changing triumph by any stretch of the imagination, ‘Suitable Flesh’ is solid, whether viewed as a more-than-decent 21st century horror film, a really weird-ass erotic thriller, or a noteworthy new addition to the tangled canon of Lovecraftian cinema. Perhaps most importantly though, it’s also a worthy continuation of the cinematic world Stuart Gordon created across his lifetime, and proof positive that that spirit can be still be taken forward, even though he’s no longer with us. Well done everybody. Any chance of another one, do you think..?


(1) In view of this, it was no surprise to hear director Joe Lynch popping up on the always entertaining The Movies That Made Me podcast last month, discussing his long-standing and unrepentant love for the erotic thriller genre.

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