Suitable Flesh, the “neo-erotica horror love story” from director Joe Lynch, premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival in June. Based on the 1937 H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Suitable Flesh centers on a psychologist’s fascination with a patient who suffers from D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder, or Multiple Personality Disorder), which forces her down a long horrific and sexual path of body-swapping and murder. The film features stars Heather Graham, Judah Lewis, and Barbara Crampton.
The film opens in a nonsensical joint hospital morgue/psych ward, moving between the autopsy operation table and the padded psych cell next door, occupied by Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Graham). A once-therapist turned homicidal psych patient, Derby speaks to former friend and colleague Dr. Dani Upton (Crampton), in an attempt to explain her innocence. The majority of the film is played out in this storytelling format, with an interspersed voiceover from Graham, as well as moments of return to this conversation in the padded room. We jump quickly into the story of Derby and how the arrival of the seemingly schizophrenic patient, Asa (Lewis), uprooted her calm life of treating anxious patients and sharing routine dinners with her husband Edward (Johnathon Schaech). Both professionally and sexually intrigued by Asa, Derby begins to mix her work life with her personal life and gets caught up in a bloody, sexual, demonic, body-swapping relationship with Asa and the demon that occasionally inhabits his (and eventually her) body.
The first few scenes of Suitable Flesh are extremely telling of what is to come, and with the shoddy camera work and color grading, it’s not promising. Early into Dr. Derby’s first therapy appointment with Asa, we are exposed to the cheesy, outdated special effects that continue for the rest of the film. These effects, such as dark panning fisheyes, poorly blurred backgrounds, and vibrating quick cuts to represent demonic possessions, are jarring and reminiscent of something you would expect from a pre-digital era. With a film pulling great inspiration from the late 80s horror writer and director Stuart Gordon, these may be a sign of homage more than neglect. But regardless of the meaning of these odd special effects moments and framing choices, they stand out like a sore thumb among the rest of the modern-day framing and camera quality; if this movie truly wanted to pay homage to a dying form, they should have leaned in, all the way in, to shooting on film, adjusting the score, and taking some chances in the art department.
In fact, Suitable Flesh seems to be a movie that timidly wavers on the edge of many budget-horror subgenres, too scared or unaware to fully make the leap. Most obvious is the indecision as to whether it identifies as a horror comedy. Though it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to showcase quality visuals or story continuity, it takes itself too seriously to learn into the laughs and self-awareness that would take this film’s quality up several notches. Many odd moments, such as the emotional moment with Dr. Derby’s lockscreen, which shows her husband holding a fish, or Edward’s buddy-like nickname for his own wife being “doc,” teeter on the edge of hilarious. However, the otherwise “serious” film surrounding these moments makes the laughs feel accidental, and it forces them to come at the expense of the film rather than let them be generated by it. Brief moments do objectively try to be funny, such as a line in which Derby rhymes “dandy” with “brandy,” but these moments are so rare and overly enhanced with dramatic camera movements and editing, that they feel forced and uncomfortable. The entire film would surely benefit from Lynch taking a step back to reconsider genre and audience reception, as would the lead performance by Graham.
Heather Graham has undeniably shined in past supporting comedy roles in films such as Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and The Hangover (2009). It’s because of this reliable history that her flat performance in Suitable Flesh was such a surprise. The character of Dr. Elizabeth Derby was a difficult role to play, lacking any real intelligence or self-awareness to support the character of a licensed psychologist, not to mention the protagonist of the entire film. While Graham has succeeded in this trope of the “beautiful bimbo” before, those were always strictly comedic, supportive roles that relied on her unintelligence for comedic beats and punchlines. When viewers are now asked to see the entire world of the movie from this character’s eyes, the entire movie feels flat, and the viewer is unable to resonate with our protagonist, effectively lowering the stakes of the rest of this action-packed film. Supporting actors Judah Lewis, Barbara Crampton, and Johnathon Schaech suffered a similar fate.
The most interesting aspect of this film very well may be its intensely sexual nature. The film features numerous extended and graphic sex scenes, as well as general sexual themes and aspects infused in even the non-sexual elements of the story. Though it may be easy to write these scenes off as overindulgent and unnecessary, Lynch succeeds in giving these scenes an honest place in the film. While many films include sex scenes for the sheer shock and excitement of the sexuality, Suitable Flesh inextricably intertwines sexuality and each individual sex scene within the concept and plot of the film. Each sex scene is necessary for the plot and moves the story along, either a catalyst for a character’s revelation or a site for further demonic possession.
Though the specific scenes and themes of sexuality are vital to Suitable Flesh’s overall story, the occasional themes of gender identity, sexual preference, and sexual identity are absolutely not. There is a horribly misplaced rambling by Asa (Lewis) in which the “demon” expresses that he originally thought he was born as a male, but very well may identify as female in the future. The phrase “the future is female” is even uttered during this rambling. Yes, I know. This is yet another instance of this film not knowing what it is, and suffering from its blind spots. This speech is clearly Lynch’s attempt to make Suitable Flesh a “modern, progressive horror film.” However, this speech stands alone in a sea of themes and scenes that are otherwise outdated, brutal, and occasionally offensive, falling into the extremely outdated film trope of the ‘woman falling in love with the man who sexually assaults her.’
Score: 0.5 out of 5.
Suitable Flesh is an erotic-horror B-movie that has no idea what it is, or what it should be. There are many paths that director Joe Lynch could have (and should have) taken fully, leaning into a specific subgenre with confidence. Instead, this film unsuccessfully attempts to somehow be everything at once. And as the actress Bonnie Gillespie once said, “When you try to be everything to everyone, you accomplish being nothing to anyone.”