Suitable Flesh begins with a POV shot from inside a body bag being zipped open. As psychiatrist Dr Dani Upton (Barbara Crampton) and the morgue’s pathologist (Graham Skipper) look down, Dani comments: “It’s impossible to tell that’s a person, much less who it is.” As Dani moves on to visit her friend Dr Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham), a schizophrenia specialist who is now herself a patient in the psych ward, ‘Beth’ will ask in a crazed panic: “Did they cremate the body? Is he dead? Really dead?”, before launching into the story of how she came to be there – a story that will constitute much of the film’s narrative until it loops all the way back to the here and now in Beth’s padded cell, and beyond that to a new chapter in this ancient myth.
As text reveals, this prologue is all unfolding at the Miskatonic Medical School, Arkham Massachusetts – a fictional institution familiar not just from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but from Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985) which, like Suitable Flesh, was written by Dennis Paoli, and starred Crampton (who is also a producer here), and featured lengthy sequences in the Medical School’s morgue where the dead would come back to life. Beth’s story is different, but like Julian Richards’ Reborn (2018) – which also featured Crampton – and James Wan’s Malignant (2021), this latest film from director Joe Lynch lovingly resurrects the shriller, schlockier aspects of Reagan-era horror.
When Beth is visited by a new young patient Asa Waite (Judah Lewis) who, following a seizure, appears to change personalities before her eyes from a nervous, shy student to someone altogether more direct and sexually forward, she finds herself unable to stop thinking about him, even when she is having sex with her loving husband Eddie (Jonathan Schaech) – an oh-so-Eighties softcore scene right down to the accompanying sax on the score. When Beth’s house call to Asa ends in passionate intercourse between her and the young man alongside the corpse of his father Ephraim (Bruce Davison), and in a transfer of more than just bodily fluids, what seems like standard erotic thriller fare quickly gives way to something wilder and weirder. For the horny, cigarette-smoking entity that is here fucking with people’s minds as much as their bodies will prove very hard to kill, even by the tried-and-tested methods of defenestration borrowed from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973).
In a body-swapping scenario that riffs on Jack Sholder’s The Hidden (1987), Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen (1988) and Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger (2018), the principal cast shows great versatility in playing their own individual characters, the creature that occasionally inhabits their bodies, and the character whom it has last possessed, in a pass-the-parcel of identity that encompasses considerable latitude for sexual (and transsexual) expperimentation, and leaves the viewer, like Dani in the opening scene, finding it “impossible to tell that’s a person, much less who it is.” Although as the morgue pathologist had said: “They all look pretty much the same on the inside.”
After all, the vanities that make us different from each other – our age, our gender, our sex – mean little to an eternal, transdimensional being that merely regards us as transient vessels for its pleasures. Meanwhile Lynch too finds sensational new forms to keep the old ones alive, in this lovingly batshit resurrection of Gordon’s Lovecraftian spirit.
Suitable Flesh had its world première at Tribeca Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on 27 October.