Suitable Flesh Can Be a Rotten Delight

Images courtesy of Strike Media, Shudder, and Vertigo Releasing.

Suitable Flesh is like being invited to an orgy where people obviously have STDs. The promising premise is undermined by predictability as well as a constant sense that it wants to be a sexually sophisticated horror flick. Yet, its erotic elements tend to induce more cringe than titillation. The strange thing is Suitable Flesh feels like it’s attempting to conjure such impressions, so maybe it is hitting the mark.

The movie presents Heather Graham as psychiatrist Elizabeth Derby. Her quiet, boring life is turned upside down when she encounters a frantic young man named Asa Waite. Played by Judah Lewis, he’s concerned that his father is trying to steal his body through psychic hijacking. While Dr. Derby initially believes Asa’s plight to be a simple mental illness, she soon discovers the young man’s fears are all too real. She then begins a spiraling descent through cosmic horror leading to sex, gore, and madness.

A screaming Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham) is restrained by orderlies in Suitable Flesh.
[L to R] Joe Lynch, Heather Graham, and Jonah Ray Rodrigues as Ray the Orderly, Elizabeth Derby, and Dave the Orderly in Suitable Flesh (2023). Images courtesy of Strike Media, Shudder, and Vertigo Releasing.
On paper, there’s a lot to the plot that sounds fabulous. Adapted from a short story by author H. P. Lovecraft, Suitable Flesh takes the main ideas from “The Thing on the Doorstep” and makes some clever choices. There’s an effort to erase the misogynistic elements the problematic author included in the original source material. Furthermore, in many respects, Suitable Flesh clears the low bar set by numerous dreadful Lovecraft-inspired films.

However, there’s a timidity when it comes to certain content which stops Suitable Flesh from ever soaring. Gore is grotesque yet limited. Sex is shown in ways that come across more comical than erotic. Meanwhile, mediocre acting hampers whatever seriousness the plot possesses. This leaves a viewer wondering if Suitable Flesh is supposed to be laughed at, especially since any comedy seems more accidental than intentional.

At risk of spoilers, there’s a moment where Dr. Derby is riding her husband on the couch and the camera begins to spin. Although the intent may be to induce a sense of disorientation, visually conjuring a sense of spiraling madness, it’s more reminiscent of the twirling transitions in the kitschy 1966 Batman tv series. Then afterward, implications of kinky sex involving cutting look like someone spilled a thin dash of ketchup on chiseled abs.

Asa Waite (Judah Lewis) kneels, shirtless and in a basement as a woman approaches in Suitable Flesh (2023).
Judah Lewis as Asa Waite in Suitable Flesh (2023). Images courtesy of Strike Media, Shudder, and Vertigo Releasing.

That suggests director Joe Lynch is making intentional choices which makes things worse. Following a script from writer Dennis Paoli, Suitable Flesh could be trying to recapture the vibe of Stuart Gordon horror flicks. After all, Paoli wrote many of Gordon’s most recognizable titles such as Re-Animator (1985). The thing is those types of films are harder to replicate than people tend to assume. Suitable Flesh keeps steering towards that good/bad edge of the unsettling absurd but more often goes over in a wreck.

The plot is predictable to the point of tedium. Pacing doesn’t help since by the middle of the movie the story drags at the rate of a corpse trying to escape its own autopsy. And some narrative elements like character connections arrive without any development. Consequently, the movie has a slapdash quality that feels more half-assed than amusingly odd or loveably low budget.

Certainly not helping things is the acting. The weirdest part being the main characters played by Heather Graham and Judah Lewis are often better when possessed. It’s almost as if the performers find better footing when they’re supposed to be under the control of Asa’s father. When Graham’s body is hijacked, she takes on an intensity and manages terrifying expressions that are pure horror gold. Lewis exudes an odious charm that is simultaneously sinister yet tempting.

Daniella Upton (Barbara Crampton) walks down a hospital corridor with two orderlies behind her in Suitable Flesh (2023).
[L to R] Barbara Crampton, Joe Lynch, and Jonah Ray Rodrigues as Daniella Upton, Ray the Orderly, and Dave the Orderly in Suitable Flesh (2023). Images courtesy of Strike Media, Shudder, and Vertigo Releasing.
What makes it even better is both capture the smugness of an arrogant individual, meaning two different performers are ably expressing possession by the same person. That can’t have been easy to capture. However, whenever Judah Lewis returns to twitching fear rattled Asa, or Graham becomes Dr. Derby again, both have the acting prowess of mediocre high school theater kids. This pronounced drop in quality makes it hard to enjoy Suitable Flesh without two cocktails and a sarcastic smirk.

Perhaps that’s the point. This is a movie so ready for mockery it almost seems like it’s been set up in stocks. The problem then becomes that Suitable Flesh lacks the sincerity of an honest good/bad movie. Furthermore, it never goes far enough.

Though that said, there are some noteworthy gruesome moments. Spoiler warning—from a strange corpse rotting in the basement to a cadaver escaping its own autopsy, Suitable Flesh manages a few ghoulish delights. And though I am critical of the mishandled sex, one instance did hit the mark. It managed to be weird, uncomfortably exciting, and end on a solid horror note.

Wearing a lab coat, Dr. Daniella Upton (Barbara Crampton) reaches out to Dr. Elizabeth Derby (Heather Graham), wearing a hospital gown, in a padded cell.
Heather Graham and Barbara Crampton as Dr. Elizabeth Derby and Dr. Daniella Upton in Suitable Flesh (2023). Images courtesy of Strike Media, Shudder, and Vertigo Releasing.

Bruce Davidson does an admirable job as the villainous Ephraim trying to steal his son’s body in order to escape his own sickly meat. Barbara Crampton is believably intense as Dr. Daniella Upton and does a good job implying a close relationship with Graham’s Derby that the script never really establishes. Johnathon Schaech plays husband Edward Derby in a similar vein to the body swapped main characters. That’s to say, his performance gets more interesting when his character gets less likable.

Suitable Flesh wants to be this bonkers film with a weird psychosexual edge. Unfortunately, it never leans enough into one or the other to take it over the top. What results is a film straining to be comically bad and grotesquely shocking but is ultimately neither. Fans of Stuart Gordon flicks may give it a pass because Suitable Flesh implies the taste of such movies. However, it’s hardly a substitute for the real thing.

Though Suitable Flesh may make for a solid beer and a pizza night, where friends gather to mock movies, it’s hardly a fantastic horror flick. Those looking for chills would do best to seek frights elsewhere. Those in search of cinema set up to be pilloried, look no further. Suitable Flesh awaits your barbed mockery.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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