With its supply of sex, blood, and brains — and Barbara Crampton — Suitable Flesh has all the elements of a Stuart Gordon cult classic like Re-Animator or From Beyond. And that’s not by accident: Re-Animator screenwriter and frequent Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli has resurrected an unfinished project of the late filmmaker, which was to be another movie based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. With director Joe Lynch (Mayhem), he brings the short story “The Thing on the Doorstep” into the 21st century by gender-swapping its central characters, but all its references to Gordon’s work make it feel enjoyably retro. Lynch never nears the gleefully demented levels of gore and black humor that were Gordon’s hallmarks, but Suitable Flesh is still a fun if relatively mild homage. In any other context, this Lovecraftian sex-driven horror movie wouldn’t be called “mild,” but Gordon set the bar high.
Lynch begins with a shot from inside a body bag in a morgue, setting the mordant tone for what’s to come. Nearby in a padded cell, wild-eyed psychiatrist-turned-patient Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham) asks after the corpse within, desperate for confirmation that the brain has been destroyed. She tells a wild tale of bodily possession to her friend and fellow psychiatrist Daniella (producer Crampton). The film rewinds to a far more composed Dr. Derby, who meets a young man (Judah Lewis) whose story intrigues her as a student of the human mind and whose body interests her as a woman with needs, rules be damned. He tries to convince her that he is in danger, targeted by an evil entity who can inhabit the bodies of others with an incantation.
Suitable Flesh combines ick-inducing gore and sex scenes set to a saxophone score by Steve Moore, and it all adds up to a silly, schlocky good time. Though released in 2023, this seems like the type of nudity-and-violence-filled movie that would play late night on premium cable in the ‘80s and ‘90s—and validates why my conservative family didn’t have cable. Suitable Flesh isn’t as consistently gonzo, funny, or disgusting as the movies that inspired it, but it has its moments. It’s goofy and kinky and gross, engineered to please a very particular brand of horror fan who are still mourning Gordon’s passing. It’s not good exactly, but it is a pretty good time if it’s your thing.
And speaking of a good time, Graham is having an absolutely great one in this role. Depending on Dr. Derby’s frame of mind, she gets to switch between intellectual curiosity, winking perversion, and terrified mania, and her performance serves as a reminder of why she was such a star in the ‘90s. She goes big when the moment requires it, and she’s fun to watch in the film’s best moments. Unsurprisingly, Crampton seems to feel right at home in this type of picture, but as Dr. Derby’s husband, Johnathon Schaech is alternately bland and over-the-top.
While it’s great to see Graham and Crampton on screen, the acting isn’t the real draw in Suitable Flesh. It delivers on its title with boobs and blood, but Lynch isn’t just concerned with titillating or horrifying his audience. He has a real love for the genre, evident not just in his nods to Gordon, but in references to other filmmakers like Brian De Palma. (He gets in a few split diopter shots early on, making it clear what we’re in for.) Suitable Flesh looks to have been made on the cheap, but it doesn’t lack style. Special effects makeup supervisor Greg McDougall does gag-worthy work, and the actors contort their bodies to convince the audience their bodies are not their own without the aid of a lot of CG.
Suitable Flesh intentionally feels like a throwback to that bygone era of horror that blended sexual and violent thrills, but its pleasures aren’t purely nostalgic. Even if you don’t get a tinge of déjà vu watching its morgue scenes, bouncing bare breasts, and severed heads, Lynch will whet sickos’ appetites for the type of movie that they rarely make any more.
“Suitable Flesh” is in theaters Friday.