by Patrick Bromley
Since learning that Joe Lynch, one of my favorite working directors, was taking over a movie once intended for the late, great Stuart Gordon, I have been looking forward to it. Since finding out it would star Heather Graham and Barbara Crampton in a story of sex, death, and body swapping, I have been excited for it. Since seeing the first poster -- the best movie poster of the year -- I have been freaking out with anticipation. Since seeing the first trailer, I have been out of my mind wanting to see it. Now I have, and it very nearly lives up to my expectations. I say "nearly" because it turns out no movie could live up to what I had in mind. That shouldn't be laid at the feet of Joe Lynch or Suitable Flesh. That's between me and my therapist.
Heather Graham stars as Dr. Elizabeth Derby, a psychiatrist who's been institutionalized at Miskatonic (yes, the same hospital from Re-Animator). She tells her story to her best friend, fellow doctor Daniella (Barbara Crampton): Elizabeth's picture perfect life -- successful career, gorgeous suburban home, even more gorgeous husband (Johnathon Schaech) -- has been turned upside down by the arrival of new patient Asa (Judah Lewis). He has come to her with some kind of personality disorder that turns out to be something much more serious and much more sinister involving his father (a mustachio'd Bruce Davison), black magic, body swapping, and a good amount of sex.
It stands to reason that this was maybe once a Stuart Gordon project. Adapted by Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator, From Beyond) from H.P Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep," Suitable Flesh contains several of Gordon's cinematic fetishes, namely the mashing up of sexuality with violent death. And while director Joe Lynch certainly pays homage to the Lovecraftian universe Gordon created in the 1980s, the film is no Stuart Gordon cover song. Lynch has found a way to make the movie his own, from his show-offy (in the best way) formalism -- all spit diopters and irises and gliding, spinning camera -- to gender swapping the lead to put the focus on female strength, a recurring theme across his work. There are elements of Gordon and easter eggs for fans, but Lynch firmly plants his flag in the Lovecraft universe by bringing the story to the screen with maximum style and total assuredness. This is a Joe Lynch movie, maybe his best to date.
Lynch's masterstroke is grounding Suitable Flesh in the erotic thrillers of the 1980s and '90s as a means of visualizing Elizabeth's interpretation of what is happening to her. The character is repressed; the sex she has with her husband vanilla and unfulfilling, the aesthetics of her life stifling. Asa doesn't only represent an existential threat to her existence; he also represents a loss of her carefully curated control. It's control that she wants to lose, however, which might be even scarier than another person (or thing, for that matter; it's never made clear) possessing her body. David Matthews' cinematography gets the softness of erotic thrillers just right and then kicks into dizzying high gear whenever necessary, while Steve Moore's incredible score feels ripped from the early '90s, the soundtrack Elizabeth Derby hears for her her own life. I realize this makes it sound like Joe Lynch has made the Todd Haynes version of an erotic thriller, which isn't really accurate. Suitable Flesh goes beyond imitation or homage; it's about how we use art -- even trash art -- to process reality, particularly when that reality becomes increasingly impossible to process.
As a director working primarily in genre, Lynch has never really been allowed to get has weird as he would so clearly like to. Wrong Turn 2, while an improvement over its predecessor, certainly goes over the top but had to play in a sandbox already built by someone else. Knights of Badassdom offered promise and potential but was taken away and released in an unfinished form by some shady businesspeople. There's weirdness in some of his Creepshow episodes and especially in the whole Takashi Miike-inspired section of Everly, but it's clear that Lynch is a filmmaker devoted to serving the material and not forcing it to cut loose in directions it doesn't want to go. With Suitable Flesh, he's finally got material that wants to go there, and Lynch is more than willing to meet it at its weird, kinky level. Everything in the movie is heightened in typical Joe Lynch fashion, from the body-swapping sex to the darkly comic violence to the dazzling camerawork, calling attention to itself as a movie in true De Palma fashion. Yes, this is Lynch's Dressed to Kill or Body Double by way of cosmic horror; it's his most personal film to date in that it's all about his own fetishes, both cinematic and otherwise.
Suitable Flesh is in theaters and on VOD on October 27th.