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Suitable Flesh director Joe Lynch has the resilience one needs to be an indie genre director.
Lynch’s new horror film starring Heather Graham and Barbara Crampton is currently sporting his best reviews since his certified fresh action-horror film, Mayhem (2017). Suitable Flesh spiritually picks up where Crampton left off in the ‘80s, alongside director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli. Their H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator and From Beyond, have long been considered cult classics, and once Crampton proposed the idea of adapting Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep into Suitable Flesh, a project Gordon and Paoli had once developed, Lynch knew he had to pay tribute his heroes and their Miskatonic University-verse.
“The more I got ensconced in it, the more it felt like a natural extension of what these guys did before. It allowed me to respectfully take the baton from Stuart and run with it by tethering to this bigger world,” Lynch tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Lynch also viewed Flesh as an opportunity to fuse horror and the erotic thriller genre, especially at a time when a younger generation is making waves for their disinterest in sexuality on screen. According to a new study from UCLA, nearly half of Gen Z considers sexual content to be superfluous to the plot of movies and TV shows. For Lynch, it comes down to multiple factors including the rise of four-quadrant franchise storytelling and the loss of mid-budget films for grown-ups.
“We got (sex scenes) in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we got them in the advent of the mid-budget thriller … And because of the dissolution of the adult mid-budget film, we started to lose sex scenes in films, too,” Lynch says.
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Lynch also details the ways in which he prepared his Suitable Flesh cast for his film’s eroticism and violence. Then he explains how his podcast, The Movie Crypt, kept him in the film industry when his chips were at their lowest.
So did Barbara Crampton first bring up this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation during your “Pipe Screams” episode of Creepshow?
It was actually before that. I was literally about to leave for Atlanta to go shoot Creepshow, and my flight was the day that the world shut down in March 2020. At that point, we had not cast the episode yet, and six weeks later during the pandemic, Barbara emailed me about this crazy flick, Suitable Flesh. We had been friendly before, but never to the point where she’s emailing me, saying, “What do you think about this project?” So once I got interested and we started developing the script during that summer, I was also able to softly develop the stuff that I was doing with Creepshow.
In August or September of 2020, when the world was starting to open up a little bit, Creepshow was actually the first show to start rolling again in Atlanta. And then (EP) Greg (Nicotero) asked me, “Who do you want to play this part?” And I was like, “Who can I find to play the ultimate Karen? Barbara Crampton!” This would also be my very sly way of showing Barbara that I could make a day and be a responsible filmmaker. At the time, she was only going to produce Suitable Flesh; she wasn’t going to be in it at all. So I thought Creepshow would be a great way to show her that I know what the hell I’m doing. It was almost like an audition for her.
Creepshow is usually shot over three days. It’s a very tight schedule, and by the end of the first day, she went, “We are going to have so much fun together on (Suitable Flesh).” At the time, it was called The Thing on the Doorstep, and when we did cast her in Suitable Flesh, I’ve never worked with anyone who was so prepared. She’s just both sides of the coin. She’s the best.
Suitable Flesh is dedicated to Re-Animator and From Beyond director Stuart Gordon, and it certainly makes sense given Barbara’s involvement and the Dennis Paoli script based on a Lovecraft story. Was the project originally conceived to pick up where Gordon left off?
When Barbara approached me with it, she wasn’t really saying, “We want to continue this Miskatonic-verse.” Now, I had known about the project for a couple of years, because I used to go to these “Masters of Horror” dinners, and a lot of times, you would chew the fat with other heroes of yours. “Hey, Joe Dante is over there. There’s John Landis, and Michael Mann just showed up.” And sitting next to Stuart (Gordon) one night, he was talking about the project, and he was excited about getting the band back together. So as a fan, I was just excited because it was the reunion of all these great artists that I fell in love with back in the Re-Animator and From Beyond and Dagon days.
So when Barbara asked me to take a whack at it, it wasn’t really supposed to be that tethered and that much of an homage. She was just like, “Make it your own.” But the more and more I read it and the more and more I got under the hood, I got excited about, “Well, what if this was set in the same Arkham, Massachusetts?” There was one line right in the beginning that referenced Miskatonic University, and I was like, “Wait a second, there’s a hook right there.” Now, we didn’t have to make it so slavish to whatever serialized version of what Lovecraft was doing back in the day. We could have still just made it as a standalone piece, but as a fan of those movies, I just got more and more excited about slipping in little jokes and little Easter eggs.
So the more I got ensconced in it, the more it felt like a natural extension of what these guys did before. It allowed me to respectfully take the baton from Stuart and run with it by tethering to this bigger world. Lovecraft was doing it back then anyway. A lot of his stories were set in the same world. So it just felt natural to pay homage to Stuart and what he established with (producer) Brian Yuzna, Dennis, Barbara and Jeffrey Combs.
As far as the intended tone, did you put together a watch list for your cast and crew?
Yes, I also like to make mixtapes for the actors, just to give them a feel of who their characters are. They can run with it if they want, but when it comes to movies, I’m always doing that for all of the collaborators. It gives them a good idea of the approach that I want to take, and it was really important with this movie’s tone because we’re bringing forth that playful, mischievous, dangerous feel that Stuart had with Re-Animator and From Beyond, but also a lot of erotic thrillers that felt indicative of the kind of tone and the style that we wanted for at least two-thirds of the movie.
This kind of stemmed from re-reading Dennis’ The Thing on the Doorstep script, but he structured it with Elizabeth Derby, Heather’s character, telling a crazy story to her best friend (Crampton’s Daniella Upton). It involves sex and infidelity and caustic choices, and it felt very reminiscent of a lot of these erotic thrillers that we watched back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And I thought, “Well, if she’s trying to present this visually to her friend, you would see it in her head as if she was watching Basic Instinct or The Last Seduction or Body Chemistry.” And so that’s what we tried to do because most of the movie is one long flashback until we return to the padded cell.
So when I talked to the actors, I said that I want to present the sex and the eroticism in a way that is coming from a female perspective. That’s why when it comes to some of the nudity in the film or at least the flesh that’s involved, we’re kind of skewing more towards the male side. We see a lot more male flesh than we do female flesh at times. There’s obviously something for everybody, but showing the actors how I wanted to show the more dangerous moments was really important. And look, anytime you give an actor or even a crew member the homework of watching a movie, it usually goes over pretty well.
Yeah, Suitable Flesh is ultimately a horror film, but there are definitely traces of an erotic thriller, in that it contains multiple sex scenes. I’m sure you’ve caught on to the social media discourse that mostly involves a younger generation, but what do you make of their belief that sex scenes in movies are awkward and unnecessary to the plot?
That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do the film, and again, this all stems from Stuart Gordon and Re-Animator and From Beyond. Not to say that sex was not in fashion or favor back in 1985, but for me, as a kid, sex was very cautionary in that it was mostly in slasher films. And in slasher films, if you have sex, you die. So that really freaked me out as a kid.
But seeing how Stuart and even his cinematographer Mac Ahlberg approached eroticism in these films, (sex scenes) were very much a part of the plot and they were very much a part of the character. So that got me really excited to take that approach with this, and knowing that sex was a part of the plot and sex was a part of the character development of these characters, I had to not worry about certain purviews that are becoming popular these days or were popular. Who knows, maybe the pendulum’s swinging the other way based on how people have been responding to the movie.
But in the last couple of years, people have been shying away from it for various reasons: one being the Me Too movement and how people are dealing with it on a production side. I’ll be the first person to tell you that it’s not terribly titillating, so to speak, to present these things in a production. They’re very mechanical in a way. You have people standing all over the place, but we still had a very closed set. When you’re making love or having sex with someone, you don’t usually have a camera stuck in your face, and it takes some of the heat out of the moment.
Even with intimacy coordinators the last couple of years, some filmmakers decide, “You know what? Maybe we can do a cross-fade out of there or maybe we don’t need it at all.” But technology has also changed a lot of this in the way that it’s presented or at least distributed. Gone are the days of Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in Boogie Nights wanting to have a story propel this. And maybe this is all just the fact that a lot of stories that have been presented out there don’t really necessitate the sex.
Also, with the internet, people don’t want to sit through something for two hours; they just want to get to the sex. When I was growing up, you had to watch the movie at a theater and wait for the sex, unless you wanted to sit there and fast forward at home. But now you just type a couple keywords and boom, there you go. So that’s where some of this purview is coming from. The sexuality that’s out there now is very “single-serving friend” to paraphrase Fight Club, but it’s getting increasingly more challenging to present that in a way that is sexy while also making sure that everything is completely comfortable with all the actors involved.
So we wanted to buck the trend a little bit, and anytime that we had any kind of sexual relations in the film, everybody knew what we were doing. I did storyboards for everything, and I also gave all the actors and their representatives 32-page documents on exactly how we wanted to present it so that there were no surprises. So everybody walked on set and knew exactly what we were doing, to the point where they would go, “Okay, we know what you’re going to do now, let’s feel free and let’s feel comfortable.” And a lot of the natural chemistry, especially between Barbara, Heather and Judah, came from that.
So the actors felt like they trusted me, and they knew I wasn’t going to pull any shenanigans on them. Those manipulative things that we heard other filmmakers do back in the day, that shit doesn’t fly anymore. So the more that we were all in complete communication, the more that were able to look at each other and go, “Okay, let’s play.”
Heather Graham has performed in these types of scenes before, but being just 22 years old, I don’t believe Judah Lewis has, so it sounds like all the prep helped the dynamic.
We made him a man on this set. The first day of shooting was the Texas Switch, where we show what Heather’s character is going through in her relationship, and then what her fantasy becomes. So I had to be the dingbat who was like, “Let’s do a Texas Switch!” And that constituted having both Heather, Jonathan (Schaech) and Judah in the same bed and even in the same shot at times. That was Judah’s first day of shooting and he had not turned 21 yet. At the end of the day, he was like, “Well, that was a rite of passage.” (Laughs.) He was such a trooper, and that kid is so talented and such a pro. So no one ever felt like it was awkward at all because he took it as seriously as everybody else did.
Returning to the sex scene discourse, the only theory I have is that Gen Z was raised in a time where franchises were the name of the game, and since those films have to be everything to everyone around the world, they’re sexless for the most part.
Absolutely. I would love to see a Marvel movie really go there. This is something that The Boys played off of, and between all these save-the-world situations, superheroes want to have sex, too. They just don’t show it. So I agree. In general, the way that the business has been in the last 10 or 15 years, it’s either been $100 million, four-quadrant films, or very specific, very low budget, Blumhouse-esque films that are $1 million to $2 million films. They are also secretly trying to hit those four quadrants, because a couple of them did really well, and they don’t want to turn anybody off from the generalized version of what these stories would be.
So would I love to see more sex scenes and eroticism in those movies if it means something and has a reason to be there? Absolutely. We got them in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and we got them in the advent of the mid-budget thriller, the $10 to $20 million film that would spend the money on the stars and spend the money on the IP, so to speak, which was usually a hot novel that’s on the shelves. So those days are gone, or at least they were gone for the last couple of years. So you’re right. And because of the dissolution of the adult mid-budget film, we started to lose sex scenes in films, too.
So the violent back-up camera sequence is something you’ve been daydreaming about for 15 years?
15 years, yes, and I’m so glad that it’s in the movie. I’ve wanted to do that particular shot since I owned a Prius back in 2007. When dealers show you the car, they actually have you sit in the front and the back, and when I was sitting in the back, I remember seeing that shot and going, “There’s something here. Holy crap. Could you imagine if we actually held on a shot and let that whole thing happen?” And for about 15 years, I’ve been praying that no one else would do that.
On my first film Wrong Turn 2, when the original script killed Kimberly Caldwell’s character, it just cut to black, and I sold myself in the room by saying, “That’s not what the audience wants. They want to see it go further. They want to see an entertaining kill that they haven’t seen before, and if you show it for as long as possible, that gets audiences more excited, especially when you’re in a crowd.” And in Wrong Turn 2, we essentially cut Kimberly Caldwell, the former American Idol contestant, in half, and then the two mutants walk away with each half all in one take. And the reaction to that was so amazing, especially at festivals, and I’ve been chasing that ever since.
So I could capture that same feeling with the backup camera shot just as long as no one else did it. And in the original script for The Thing on the Doorstep, this one character falls out of a building, and then this other character stabs them repeatedly before getting pulled away. And I was like, “We can’t just do that. We need more. Wait a second, this other character drove here in a car that probably has a backup camera.” And voila. It all worked out from there.
I’m a long-time fan of your podcast, The Movie Crypt, which you co-host alongside fellow filmmaker and performer, Adam Green. The two of you welcome other actors and filmmakers on the show all the time, so how valuable has that podcast been to your filmmaking? Have you applied anything you’ve picked up from those conversations?
Yes, when we started The Movie Crypt, it was primarily a promotional tool for Holliston, the sitcom co-starring Adam Green and I. It was only supposed to run for ten weeks, and then at the end of that 10 weeks, the company that we were working with was like, “We have really amazing numbers. You guys should keep going.” And this was at a time when there weren’t too many filmmakers doing filmmaker-on-filmmaker conversations. We never wanted it to be a PR vessel. We wanted people on when they could feel like they could chew the fat with us, and wanted it to be almost therapeutic.
As you know, this business is tough (for filmmakers). In the beginning of the week, you’ll be like, “Let’s take on the world.” And by Friday, you want to quit because you’ve been told no so many times. You hit all these roadblocks. But when another filmmaker would come on the podcast and profess their frustrations and their trials and tribulations on whatever film they’ve done past, present or future, it made us go, “You know what? We can stick it out another week as filmmakers and keep pushing ourselves forward.”
(The Salma Hayek-led) Everly would be my first film to have the Movie Crypt influence, and so the biggest thing that I’ve learned from it is to never give up. That’s kind of become our motto for the show. There have been some really rough times, both professionally and personally, and there have been plenty of moments where I could have hung it all up and found another job. And yet, I keep going. Maybe 10 percent of it is out of just pure ignorance and naivete, but most of it is knowing that all of the filmmakers that we’ve had on have also been through this.
I did a film called Knights of Badassdom, which was a very difficult situation. We found out later it was a Ponzi scheme. I had no control over the final cut, and that broke my heart. I was ready to give it up. I was done. And through those “Masters of Horror dinners that Mick Garris put on, we had become really friendly with Don Cascarelli. He’s one of my heroes behind the Phantasm films and also The Beastmaster. So we had Don on the show, and I was like, “I can’t wait to talk to you about Beastmaster.” And watching my hero’s face change, it was like someone stuck a lemon in his mouth. He went, “Ooh.” And we were like, “What happened?’ And he went, “I don’t really like to talk about that one. They took the cut away from me.” And then he explained every single thing that I was going through at the time with Knights of Badassdom.
So, hearing that, it completely changed my perspective on making films and the reaction of those films. Once you’re done, there’s nothing you can do about it. Suitable Flesh is out now, and we’re getting really great reviews. We’re also getting some people who say it’s the worst piece of shit ever. I can’t control that. You can’t control the subjectivity of what someone brings into watching your film. So that rewired me completely, and it really did rewire me in every film that I’ve made since. With Knights of Badassdom (2012), I was trying to make everybody happy and not myself. If you ever go back and watch Everly (2014), I see it now, metaphorically. I see an artist who is trapped in a box and is trying to literally shoot their way out. I was incredibly angry, and that is an angry movie, but that is truly a reflection of where I was. Same thing with (the Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving-led) Mayhem.
Independent film, man. It’s not like you get a three-picture deal and a bungalow at Warner Bros. anymore. You have bills to pay and mouths to feed, so I immediately had to go back to work. I ended up getting this corporate job, and it was soul-sucking, because I somewhat consider myself a creative person. And when you work in corporate life, it is not creative at all. I was miserable. So Mayhem was my reaction to what it’s like being a cog in a huge machine. And having The Movie Crypt and hearing Don Cascarelli say, “Stop doing it for everybody else, do it for you,” that changed everything for me.
A decade ago, you made an unauthorized Venom short called Truth in Journalism (2013). Did anything ever come of that, be it a strongly worded letter from Sony, or a bottle of water when they were developing what would become Tom Hardy’s Venom?
I’m so glad you brought that up. I still find Truth in Journalism to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done, or at least one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. I love it. I did that in Between Knights of Badassdom and Everly, and pardon my French, but I gave no fucks. I wanted to do something that was purely from the id. I wasn’t trying to make it a calling card. If I was trying to make a calling card, I wouldn’t have made an entire Marvel fan film based on Man Bites Dog, the incredibly nihilistic and violent Belgian film from the ‘90s.
But when presented with this idea, I just went, “Why not? There’s no money here, and the worst thing that could happen is someone says, ‘Take it down.’” That’s why the title card says Eddie B instead of Eddie Brock, and we never referenced Spider-Man directly. We just alluded to him. So we tried to safeguard ourselves as much as possible from any lawsuits or litigations, but no one told us to take it down. I heard that a couple people from Marvel and Sony really dug it, but I never got that meeting.
They’re going to keep making these movies to the point where they’re going to say one day, “We’ve run out of filmmakers. Who else is out there?” So I would jump at the chance in a heartbeat, because I love Eddie Brock as much as you can love a villain-turned-antihero. But that film was the first step of me doing things for me, and to be able to do an ‘80s mashup of Venom in the universe of Man Bites dog in the ‘80s, that was a chef’s kiss.
Suitable Flesh is available Oct. 27 in theaters and on VOD.