Joe Lynch On (Love)Crafting Truly Erotic Horror With SUITABLE FLESH

Creating an uncommon Lovecraft movie.

By Michael Gingold · October 26, 2023, 7:30 PM EDT
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When Suitable Flesh arrives in theaters and on digital platforms this Friday, October 27 from RLJE Films and Shudder, it will mark the end of a long odyssey for the screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Thing on the Doorstep.” First written for the late Stuart Gordon to direct a couple of decades ago by Gordon’s frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli, it eventually wound up being helmed by Joe Lynch, whose credits range from 2007’s Wrong Turn 2: Dead End to 2017’s Mayhem and the Creepshow series. FANGORIA spoke to Lynch following Flesh’s world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and after it screened at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Suitable Flesh stars Heather Graham as psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Derby, a gender flip on Edward Derby, the hero of Lovecraft’s original tale. Dr. Derby has a successful practice and a loving husband (Johnathon Schaech), but her well-ordered world is upset when a young man named Asa Waite (Judah Lewis) turns up at her office. At first apparently afflicted by multiple personality disorder, Asa proves to have some much darker secrets, and Dr. Derby finds herself turned on by his intensity and sense of danger. Once she meets Asa’s father Ephraim (Bruce Davison), the danger becomes far more severe as the situation takes some severely disturbing, carnal and bloody turns. Co-starring Gordon/Paoli film veteran Barbara Crampton (also one of the producers), Suitable Flesh explores themes of eroticism not often seen in current genre cinema, while also delivering memorably ghastly setpieces. (You can read more about Suitable Flesh here and in FANGORIA’s current issue #21.)

Your previous genre films have been action-oriented, and Suitable Flesh is a more interior story, so can you talk about taking that different approach?

Well, ever since Wrong Turn 2—and even that one is a bit of a hybrid, because it’s got action and it’s a splatter movie, which was always a subgenre of horror to a degree—I’ve been horror-adjacent, with Knights of Badassdom and Everly and Mayhem, and then a horrifying experience with [Netflix’s] Point Blank. I’ve always wanted to go back to doing a straight horror movie, and the opportunities just weren’t there in the scripts that were coming to me. Because I was doing action, I was getting action scripts, and I kept telling my reps, “I really want to do a horror movie.” And they were saying, “You’re big time now, you’re doing Netflix movies—stay on that course.”

Then the pandemic happened, and when I got that e-mail from Barbara Crampton with Dennis Paoli’s script, I knew what it was the second I saw the pdf. I was like, “Oh my God, this is Dennis’ script for Stuart’s movie! Why is she sending it to me?” Immediately, the excitement of doing a horror movie got my hackles up again; I was like, “This is the kind of story I want to tell,” even before I read the script.

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Suitable Flesh is kind of an uncommon Lovecraft movie, in the sense of what people might expect from that; there are no tentacled creatures, ancient cults or zombies in it.

That’s true, though if you look very closely, there is some Cthulhian shit going on in the background, but I felt this was a great opportunity to take Lovecraft to a place that I remember. Re-Animator was really my introduction to Lovecraft; I didn’t know who he was in 1985 when it came out, but I was very curious: Who the hell is this dude who gets his name above the title? I immediately started reading all his stories, and what I noticed was that aside from the more cosmic horror he had written, the others, even “Herbert West—Reanimator,” were very grounded in terms of character, and in terms of not just sexuality but identity politics, in a way. I felt like there was an opportunity here to take all those elements and do something with Lovecraft where you didn’t necessarily have to be attuned to the other dimensions and stuff like that; not all Lovecraft skews that way. We had the license to take a lot of the themes he was dealing with in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and transport them in a way that felt different.

At the same time, you’ve got both general and specific callbacks to Gordon’s films, particularly Re-Animator, in Suitable Flesh, like the Miskatonic University setting.

Yeah, and that meant I didn’t need to world-build as much, because a lot of it was already done for me in those other movies. Stuart had connected those films, in a way; just the fact that Jeffrey Combs has a Miskatonic University T-shirt on in From Beyond made me think, as a kid, “Oh, like Stephen King connects all these different people and events in the same town, Castle Rock, it must be the same university in From Beyond that’s in Re-Animator.” And that’s what we tried to do here.

You even have another security guard named Mace in Suitable Flesh.

It’s Mace Jr.—that’s his son! Though you would think that after the horrific events in Re-Animator, he would probably have told his son, “You know what? Maybe you should be an accountant! Maybe you shouldn’t take on the same job I had years ago.”

Did you aim to cast someone in that role who resembled Gerry Black, the original Mace?

Yes, there were a couple of actors like that, though honestly, it was cast purely out of practicality, because we shot in Mississippi and had to use local talent. So we tried to find someone who looked as much like Mace as possible. The guy we ended up getting [Hunter Womack] was great, and I was going more for the actor than the aesthetic, if anything. But once I told him Mace’s whole backstory, he was very excited about it. He was like, “Oh man, I’m doing my dad proud!”

The movie has a visual scheme in which Elizabeth Derby’s world, both her home and office, are very white and beige and bland, and then it becomes much richer when the film gets into the meat of the story. Can you talk about that approach?

The thing that Lovecraft does so well is, he has characters telling the stories, and I thought this was a great opportunity to have Elizabeth tell her side of the story. It’s essentially about someone who gives in to their desires, for better or worse, with consequences. And the way she sees the world—her perfect life, her perfect job, her husband—it seems a little bland, and the grass is greener on the other side. Or a little more dangerous, which is attractive to her. I felt that aesthetically, we could play with that in terms of color in the production design and cinematography, to show that the deeper she goes into that world, once she makes that choice, things start to broaden in terms of the style and color palette.

That was a very conscious approach early on, so the audience would go, “Oh, that seems so fuckin’ boring!” Because you want characters people can relate to, and if you put the audience in their shoes a little bit, both through who you cast and how you shoot it, you can let them think, “Yeah, maybe I would do that if I was in her bland shoes and looking at all these goddamn pastels all the time!” This guy who walks in the door, he’s got a Faith No More shirt on, he’s got darker hues, he seems like that cool kid in the back of the classroom who smokes cigarettes and you want to hang out with him ’cause he’s going to tell you all the awesome albums to listen to. There’s something very attractive about him, through the casting and the costumes, and his color palette was very specific in making you go, “Oh, when he came in, everything got more exciting!”

That was something I worked very hard on with David Matthews, a local DP who had worked with [Suitable Flesh producer] AMP International before, and shot Jakob’s Wife and Glorious. I loved his stuff, and once I started sending him movies like Basic Instinct and Body Double and Dressed to Kill, all those erotic thrillers that use the camera and the style as part of expressing character, he got excited too. It was a great way to personify a lot of a person’s psyche, in this case Elizabeth Derby, through the camera, the lighting, and the production design.

What was it about that whole cycle of ’80s and ’90s erotic thrillers that you tried to infuse into Suitable Flesh?

That stems back to even Re-Animator. I grew up with the slasher movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s, where sex was gonna get you killed. They were cautionary tales that made me stay away from sex, like, “Whoa, if I put my penis in a vagina, I’m probably gonna get stabbed and killed or somebody’s gonna take a machete to me.” Maybe it was the advent of AIDS as well that was changing people’s perceptions. But Re-Animator was one of the first films that used sexuality in a way that was dangerous and provocative, but also very alluring in the way Stuart shot a lot of those scenes. And From Beyond—that’s all you have to see. There’s nothing crazier than sitting next to Barbara Crampton watching a 4K version of From Beyond during a film festival, and she’s going, “I look so good!”

The link between that and the stuff Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven were doing in the ’80s and ’90s was, this was pre-Internet, before we were able to have our senses aroused by going on-line, where there’s no story, you’re just getting scenes and that’s it. There was a time when people would go to the movies to hopefully use that as an appetizer, in a sense, to possibly take it to the bedroom with your loved one or maybe just someone you were very attracted to. Those days have kind of gone away, and I missed sexuality in cinema and it not being such a dirty thing. It can still be dirty, it can still be scary and provocative and dangerous, but it seemed like filmmakers were shying away from it lately.

That made me very excited about really infusing the sexuality into Suitable Flesh, and not shying away from it. There’s nothing better than being at screenings of the movie where any time there’s a sex scene going on, you can feel the audience going, “I…don’t know what to do right now. This is kinda weird, because I’m usually at home looking at this stuff!” They’re generally not in a theater, the way people used to watch porn, the way people used to watch erotica. Couples went to Deep Throat back in the day; they would go to theaters together, and then hopefully it would parlay into something later on. That was something I wanted to make sure we didn’t shy away from, and again, I believe Stuart was very aware of it back in the day. He wanted to make sure that sex was being used in a proactive way that forwarded the plot and the characters—and hopefully got people’s rocks off.

Do you have plans to further explore the “Miskatonic-verse” and adapt more Lovecraft?

Yes—I love that world, and it was so exciting to open it up a little bit. I think the producers and Dennis have been excited to see that we can tell more stories like this. They don’t have to be MCU-ish, where it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see Suitable Flesh, so I can’t see these other ones.” There are so many Lovecraft stories that can be brought into the modern world, very much like Stuart did with Re-Animator. That was a story that was written in the ’20s, and Stuart made it feel fresh and modern, so why can’t we do that with Lovecraft’s other works? There are plenty of tales to tell in the Miskatonic-verse, and if I have my druthers, I’ll get another shot at it.