While the late Stuart Gordon made his mark on H.P. Lovecraft's work, filmmaker Joe Lynch's Suitable Flesh (now in theatres and VOD) maintains an essence of Gordon's approach, while adding his own style to the story.
Suitable Flesh is an adaptation of the 1933 short story "The Thing on the Doorstep."
Heather Graham plays Dr. Elizabeth Derby, a psychiatrist we initially see in a padded room in a psych ward when she gets a visit by her friend Dr. Daniella Upton (Barbara Crampton). Elizabeth believes there's a man who's out to get her and tries to explain to Daniella why that's the case.
That's when we go back to Elizabeth's life before she was in the psych ward, specifically a particular moment when Asa Waite (Judah Lewis), who she diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, meets her in a frantic state. He believes his father Ephraim (Bruce Davison) wants to take his body and has a seizure-like episode in front of Elizabeth. But coming out of that state, Asa is a completely different person.
Elizabeth ends up going to Asa's home and sees Ephraim, and that's when we really start off on this journey of spirits, demons occupying bodies in a body snatching tale. Lynch's film finds a great balance of erotic thriller elements fans are looking for, a sensuality with bloody terror, but the humour is never lost.
"The way that Stuart told Lovecraft stories was always really intriguing to me, because he would add an element of humour to it," Lynch told Yahoo Canada. "Lovecraft can be pretty dense and Stuart Gordon's interpretation of it was always with sugar to make the medicine go down, in a way."
Lynch went on to highlight that in developing the script, alongside Dennis Paoli, it was very intentional that the story had a very dark sense of humour.
"It's having an appreciation for really dark humour, and that was something that I got from Stuart," Lynch said.
A 'collective process' with actors
Lynch actually started his career as an actor, not unlike Gordon as well, specifically coming from a theatre background. Lynch highlighted that experience gave him an "appreciation" for working with actors and really utilizing their individual talents to tell a story.
"To have an actor perform in one way that elicits one response, and then you oscillate it and you can take the same line and make it either really funny for the audience, or really scary for the audience," he said.
"One of the unique challenges with this film was that we were organically creating this entity, using all these different actors and their interpretation of it, ... you don't really have an embodiment of this entity ever. As a director, my job is to direct ... and make sure that there are consistencies."
In order to achieve that great feat of these actor inhabiting different characters, or different versions of their character, in one film, Lynch described it as a collective process to navigate those shifts.
"I'm the type of director that loves having the actor invest themselves in it and make it their own, because in most cases, if you allow that kind of freedom, they will go off and they will make things that are so much more ... resonant and deep and exciting than anything that you could have brought to the table," he said.
"I wanted to make sure that they felt like they had complete control and license over their alpha characters."
'All the things that a man's allowed to have in movies, why can't a woman have that in movies?'
In terms of actors feeling invested in their character, that certainly seemed to be the case for Graham, with Elizabeth being an adaptation of Edward in the original story. Graham has praised Suitable Flesh for the way the film allows Elizabeth to be a fully developed woman who owns her sexuality.
"Just to get to play sort of like that powerful male role as a woman, you never usually get to play one where you’re like the ultimate villain that can’t die. It’s just like a something I’ve never gotten the chance to do,” Graham said in an interview with IndieWire, prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Lynch explained that as he was telling Graham about the original story, he said the actor called it "meaty" and "provocative."
Then the conversation shifted to, if this was a script Graham received when she was in her early 20s and it was two men in the lead roles, or an older man and a younger woman, people would have accepted that as the trope, or "a thing that men do."
"That's where I was like, if we change it around a little bit and we have it where it's not just a woman, but it's an older woman who is firmly established with her job, she's got a loving home, maybe she's kind of falling into complacency a little bit," Lynch said. "All the things that a man's allowed to have in movies, why can't a woman have that in movies?"
"She was very firmly ensconced in, this is how I feel, as a woman, a professional woman in this situation, in this happenstance would be dealing with a kid who walks through my door who seems to have multiple personality disorder, and then that intrigued me. ... He even violates me at one point and there is something almost dangerously alluring about that, that makes me reflect on my own marriage and my own sense of identity."
'Even if you piss them off, you're affecting them'
With Lynch naming filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Sam Raimi, the Coen Brothers, John Dahl and David Lynch as different sources of inspiration, Lynch stresses that it's fun to make a movie where people challenge his decisions for his film and ask hard questions.
"It's so much better then just going, 'Yep another superhero movie, what's going to happen next?'" Lynch said. "We get to have a dialogue about it and that's really exciting."
"All my favourite filmmakers are provocative filmmakers. ... You don't want to lose the audience, but at the same time, you don't want to make something that is blasé, that just kind of ... washes over them. Some of my favourite filmmakers are the ones that will challenge me and challenge my ideals, challenge my perception of what the story is. The best films, I think, are the ones that put you in the character's shoes and go, 'What would you do?'"
Conversely, Lynch added that the "beauty of cinema" is that someone can turn it off or say a film isn't for them.
"I've had a lot of critics who have watched the movie and those who didn't like it, after we have a dialogue, sometimes on Letterboxd or whatever, they go, 'Oh, I never saw it that way,'" he said. "I would much rather even just start a dialogue with someone."
"I feel like these days, if you don't put a little bit of paprika in the in the mix and spice things up a little bit, whether it's sex, whether it's a theme, whether it's a violence, I feel like the audience just doesn't want to engage. Even if you piss them off, you're affecting them. ... It doesn't mean that they have to like it, but at least they were affected by it."