Screenwriter Dennis Paoli (“Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” “Dagon”) has successfully adapted several tales by H. P. Lovecraft. His latest (actually two decades in process) is “Suitable Flesh,” an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
Paoli, in a live introduction to his film being screened at the 2023 H.P.Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, described the process of writing the original screenplay in the 1990s and then pitching it around Hollywood. It was optioned three times over the intervening years, each time to be shelved. In his presentation, he rhetorically asked the audience why they thought it was shelved each time. They had to wait for his answer.
Briefly, this complicated story involves two psychiatrists, Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham – “Boogie Nights”), and Danielle Upton (Barbara Crampton – “Re-Animator”) and Derby’s young patient, Asa Waite (Judah Lewis – “I See You”). Asa is under the impression that his father, Ephraim (Bruce Davison – “Willard”), who is dying, is seeking to literally possess his body. We see evidence of this in some beautifully acted scenes in which various characters undergo seizures after which they have completely different personalities. Almost like a real-life game of “Whack-a-Mole,” we never know where the spirit of Ephraim will pop up.
Paoli reports that when director Joe Lynch (“Creepshow”) came on board he agreed the film should be a tribute to late director Stuart Gordon (“Re-Animator”) and done in the style of his memorable 1980s Lovecraft adaptations: well lit, sarcastic, and sexy. And it certainly is. The film explores a number of topics: marital dissatisfaction, gender change, same sex attraction and, of course, the creeping horror of not knowing whether someone you know is in fact someone else – and whether you might be next. In cinematic horror, this harkens back to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
The production values are excellent, favoring well-lit horrors to the more obscure, understandable dialogue to the murkily mumbled, and a minimum of jump shocks. Best of all, the hideous caterwauling found so often in horror films these days, masquerading as tensions-building music, is totally absent. Instead, the music plays barely above the level of subliminal, and is much more effective at creating a sense of dread.
All the acting is excellent, but that of Judah Lewis as the alternately terrified and then evilly possessed Asa Waite is a standout. Heather Graham also shines as she deftly alternates personalities. And it was great to see Bruce Davison back in the horror saddle, playing the evilly lecherous old Ephraim Waite.
Is there gore? Plenty of it, on display in full technicolor and grisly detail. Is there sex? An incredible amount implied and enacted, although tastefully clothed. Which brings us back to Paoli’s reference to why the project never came to fruition until last year: the producers said there was just “too much sex.” This is a little hard to imagine considering the other movies made during those years, but perhaps it was in consideration of the age of the audience the producers thought the material would attract.
The screenplay flips the gender of many of the characters, separating itself from the male-centric world of Lovecraft’s writing. For modern audiences and current tastes, this is appropriate. Lovecraft’s tendency to ignore one-half of the human population was fast dying out even during his lifetime (1890-1937) and was overdue then.
This is a fun romp down the memory corridors of 1980s horror films, and fun for anyone who appreciates good, if over the top, storytelling. Lovecraft may be spinning in his grave, but that background humming only adds to the tense atmosphere.
Runtime: One hour, 40 minutes
Availability: At festivals now; theaters and Shudder Oct. 27, 2023
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