Monday, May 21, 2018

“I’ve Never Been Treated Like This Before! You’re a Vulgarian!” - The Suckling (1990)

Sometimes, it must be said, monsters are just monsters. Thus, it is remarkable and special when filmmakers with vision come along and show us that monsters can be more than just monsters. Francis Teri's The Suckling (1990) is an example of such vision; its monster is a metaphysical force that can shape the world in its image.

Some critics seem to focus on weak generalities rather than hard facts when viewing The Suckling. For example, reviewer Afollabi El-Sheikh Al Noor Mohammed writes, "Absolutely appalling....Don't even bother watching this, totally crap." Similarly, a reviewer with the highly trustworthy name lordzedd-3 writes under the witty heading "Suckling is the right name for it, because it sucks!" that the film's "lie about this being a true story and poor effects make this a poor movie." Reviewer Thanos Milios writes, "Even for a b-movie fan this movie can't be watched i don't know how i managed to watch that crap."

I must contradict Mr. Milios and assert that his movie can be watched. In fact, I will say it must be watched. Please read on...

On a rainy night, a man wearing a doctor’s scrubs and mask invades a house and injects a young woman with a drug. He picks her up and carries her to a bizarre hospital, where he operates on her, assisted by a topless nurse holding an axe.

Of course, the bizarre operation is just a dream—and it turns out to be a dream within a dream, as the young woman is lying in a real hospital.

Her sleep is being monitored because of her nightmares. Helpfully, her doctors give the audience a synopsis of her condition: She lived through a massacre at a brothel, and she was the only survivor.

The filmmakers flash back to the girl and her boyfriend walking to the brothel, which  like most brothels doubles as an abortion clinic. The two explain their situation to each other. The woman is pregnant and she doesn’t want an abortion, but her boyfriend cajoles her, so she tells him to ring the doorbell. “We’re here to see Big Mama,” says the boyfriend, using the universal code word for abortion clinics everywhere.

They are met by a young, friendly Lionel Richie impersonator, who leads the couple around the back of the decrepit brothel. “We’re just here to talk to her,” the woman tells Mr. Richie.

Big Mama turns out to be a woman who is a cross between Mimi from The Drew Carey Show and Beetlejuice. The pregnant woman explains she doesn’t want an abortion, but she drinks a red liquid that Big Mama offers her and soon she falls unconscious.

The abortion is handled quickly and matter-of-factly in the harsh backlight of a spinning fan.

However, when the rather large fetus is unceremoniously flushed down the toilet, unusual occurrences begin to occur. In a cleverly filmed scene, the director shows the fetus in a Gothic, roomy, blue-lit sewer, and then the camera rises to show that the sewer lies beneath an empty lot next to the brothel—a lot full of toxic waste containers.

At this point, the film, like so many other classics, mixes live action and puppetry, as we watch toxic waste fall on the fetus, which is revealed to be a puppet worked by cables that the filmmakers do not attempt to hide.

Back in the brothel, the young couple witnesses a prostitute shoot a client, but Big Mama covers the murder up quickly and it does not inconvenience anyone.

In short order, sounds begin emanating from the bathroom. “What was that?” asks a prostitute.

“I don’t know,” says Big Mama’s assistant. She adds, perhaps superfluously, “I heard it too.”

Predictably, the monster fetus’s umbilical cord bursts out of the toilet, wraps around Big Mama’s assistant’s neck, and smashes her head against the toilet, quickly decapitating her and then pulling her head into the toilet bowl.

The film quickly becomes a siege narrative, as a ragtag group of prostitutes and innocents are trapped in the brothel because they can’t get the back door to open, for slightly vague supernatural reasons.

The prostitute who witnessed the monster attack, Candy, says, “That thing is probably what has us trapped in here. It means to kill us all.”

They find that the brothel—or at least one window—is covered with a kind of preternaturally strong amniotic sac, tissue which cannot be breached by thrusting a coatrack at it.

“Where’d this thing come from that killed Bertha?” asks Lionel Richie.

“The toilet,” replies Candy, “but does that matter now?”

“Maybe,” hypothesizes Lionel Richie.

The monster uses its mutated scorpion hand and its prehensile umbilical cord to attack a prostitute in her bed, cleverly combining visuals from films as disparate as Basket Case, Xtro, and Basket Case 2.

Gathering in the living room, the group sends two of the prostitutes to look for tools such as a sledgehammer to break through the amniotic wall, despite the fact that all the tools in the brothel—a hammer and a screwdriver—are already in the living room.

They decide to “chisel” their way through the walls with the hammer and screwdriver, leading to an opportunity for social commentary as the only client in the brothel is assigned to start chiseling. “I’m a businessman, not a laborer,” says the client.

Candy observes, “He don’t like his new position on the social ladder.”

“I’ve never been treated like this before,” says the client. “You’re a vulgarian.”

The client tries to start chiseling and bangs his thumb.

While the escape attempt is slowing being carried out, the others decide to trap the creature by clogging the pipes. They stuff garbage into the sink, and are rewarded with an umbilical cord snaking out from the pipes under the sink (and some wonderful stop-motion animation when a section of the writhing umbilical cord is cut).

As in many siege movies, the characters are stretched to the breaking point. There is a somewhat awkward fistfight, after which the victor is grabbed through the wall and killed by the monster, which is now larger than a person.

The least likable character, Axel, gets a gun, psychotically murders Candy, and becomes the leader. He theorizes that the monster is in the boiler room because of the pipes and because all animals need to keep warm. A group of the survivors, including Axel, the boyfriend ,and the client, venture into the basement. Eventually, the monster electrifies itself by touching an electrical box, but the effect is only temporary.

For Axel, however, the effect is more permanent, as he charges the monster with a metal pole, misses, and rams the pole into the sparking electrical box while the monster runs away.

Back upstairs, the group breaks a small panel out of the front door, only to found that outside is a black void that becomes a pink mass of netting and cloth. When the businessman climbs outside, he finds that he must push his way through the pink fabric, only to be met by the mutant fetus monster’s jaws.

The man’s severed hand remains behind, and for some reason it is able to crawl slowly along the floor.

“Oh my God,” says a prostitute. “It was like a trap.”

In the finale, Big Mama decides to go down to the basement where Axel died. The monster emerges from a washing machine and attacks Big Mama, and then breaks through the floor to menace the original young couple. It kills the man, but instead of killing its mother, the filmmakers have the creature revert to its mutant-fetus state, after which the filmmakers present a delightful and surprising reversal which I will not spoil by describing.

As depicted at the beginning of the film, the woman is the only survivor of the brothel massacre.

The movie flashes to the present, as the woman sits in a strait-jacket in the hospital, surrounded by a myriad of other strait-jacketed patients, all of whom appear, tragically, to be college-aged.

The finale involves two lascivious orderlies who receive a bloody comeuppance, as well as some outdoor gore sequences intercut with the end titles that have nothing to do with the rest of the film.

(It must be added that the end titles appear to be in random order, with the names of crew members interspersed with the names of actors and their characters.)

In discussing The Suckling, we must first focus on the monster itself, which is never actually called a "suckling" in the film, and which probably should not be called a "suckling" under any circumstances. Performed by several people including Michael Gingold, the monster is more than a physical presence in the film. Born of an aborted fetus, toxic waste, and the nurturing environment of a 20-foot-high sewer chamber, the monster appears most frequently as a large, Outer Limits-esque creature with, some might say, unreasonably large teeth. However, it is also able to move through the pipes of the mansion/brothel/abortion clinic any time it wishes. Most metaphysically of all, the monster is able to encase the entire house in a shatterproof amniotic sac as well as a bubble of pink organic netting that cannot be penetrated. What is this monster? Is it the incarnation of the concept of an unwanted abortion? Is it guilt made flesh? The film gives us no answer, which is perhaps the most powerful answer of all.

The Suckling (the film, not the monster, which we shall not address as The Suckling) is highly interested in political discourse. Of course, the issue of abortion is controversial, and the filmmakers appear to want to examine all sides of the issue in a rational way. Should abortion be a choice? Yes, the filmmakers seem to say, as their main character chooses not to have an abortion but receives one anyway. Is abortion immoral? Yes, the filmmakers seem to say, as the result of abortion is a mutant fetus that kills people one by one. Is abortion a charged political issue requiring finesse and nuance? No, the filmmakers seem to say; it is a "hook" on which to base a monster movie.

But abortion is not the only social issue the filmmakers address in The Suckling. Note the subtle class differences on display, particularly the contrast between the brothel client and Mr. Lionel Richie. "I'm a businessman, not a laborer," the client says when he is asked to do work, to which the prostitute Candy replies, "He don't like his new position on the social ladder." The sophisticated client calls the others "vulgarians." As in many films in which the social order breaks down, those in the upper classes begin to assert their privileges, while those in the lower classes tend to think more clearly.

If the film has any imperfections, they stem from the preponderance of comical interchanges near the beginning of the film. Fortunately, the humor dies out as the film enters its siege phase, and by the end there is only shock and horror.

What more could we ask for?

Nothing, I say. Nothing at all.