Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West in Re-Animator
Empire International Pictures

Dennis Paoli has been active in the horror genre for decades. As a frequent collaborator with acclaimed horror director Stuart Gordon, Paoli has written screenplays for some of the most memorable movies in the genre, including Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, and Castle Freak.

Recently, Paoli teamed up with filmmaker Joe Lynch (Mayhem) and wrote the screenplay for his new film, Suitable Flesh. We got the chance to talk with Paoli about his writing processes, the inspiration he takes from classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and how he helped Joe Lynch bring Suitable Flesh to the screen.

Horror Geek Life: Is there something about H.P. Lovecraft’s work that draws you into adapting it for screenplays?

Dennis Paoli: Yeah, it’s in the public domain, so it’s available, truth be told. That’s kind of a joke, but going all the way back to Re-Animator, that’s one of the reasons we made it. Stuart and I identified the Re-Animator stories to be film-worthy. You didn’t have to buy the rights, you could just adapt and tell the stories, aside from the fact that we were always attracted to Lovecraft.

Stuart was a friend of mine from high school in Chicago. He was an art student and I was a math and science student, but we both loved to read, and we both loved movies. When you’re a science and math student, when you read, you read science fiction and sci-fi fantasy. And he loved all kinds of genre work. So we overlapped there and were big fans of sci-fi and horror going all the way back. We were good students, and we both ended up being roommates at the University of Wisconsin.

We used to cut high school every once in a while, and when we did, we used to go see an American International or a Hammer film, to go see the new horror film that came out, like the new Christopher Lee Dracula. We were always in that mode, and Lovecraft was relatively untapped. American International had done a number of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, and there were a couple of Lovecraft adaptations out there, but not that many, and what a spectacular oeuvre of literature he had.

My day job for decades was being a professor of English at Hunter College at the City University of New York. I ran writing programs, and I taught Gothic fiction for a long time. Lovecraft is one of the great impressionists in American literature. He’s one of the great stylists.

So, I was attracted to Lovecraft very early on, and Stuart saw that as difficult as Lovecraft is at developing his narrative; he’s not a great narrative storyteller. He’s very creepy and impressionistic, but we are the other direction. We were always expressionistic. Show it! Show everything! But you could do that with Lovecraft because he let you. He invited that, and his work invited that. Once we got on the Lovecraft train, there was so much work to do.

Ted Sorel as Dr. Edward Pretorius in From Beyond (1986)
Empire Pictures

Horror Geek Life: Which of his stories did you find the most difficult to adapt for the screen?

Dennis Paoli: Well, if you’ve seen From Beyond, we tell Lovecraft’s entire story in the pre-credits sequence. By the time the credits come on, the story is over, so we had to imagine the rest of that story. Now, as I said, Lovecraft is impressionistic. He makes an impression on you, and you have to necessarily imagine what the real horror is. So, we did, and I think that’s fair game when you’re adapting Lovecraft.

Engage your imagination as fully as possible. Give it free rein, given the inspiration, and the horrific implications of his stories, and then go with it. We trusted ourselves to do that, and in a way, that meant we were trusting Lovecraft to have told us enough to give us an exciting and horrifying story to tell, and darn it if he didn’t, every time.

To look at it another way, Re-Animator took five stories; there are actually six Re-Animator Herbert West stories, and we took a piece from each of those stories and made a single story out of it, so that was a different exercise in adaptation entirely. But it also works, so Lovecraft is a very fertile field to work in.

Related: ‘Suitable Flesh’ Review: A Solid Reuniting of Barbara Crampton and H.P. Lovecraft

Horror Geek Life: How did it feel to team up with Barbara Crampton again for Suitable Flesh, but this time, with Joe Lynch?

Dennis Paoli: It felt great in several ways. I reconnected with Barbara; we hadn’t lost connection, we would run into each other at fantasy film conventions and festivals, but I really reconnected with her during the pandemic. If you recall, Stuart Gordon died at the beginning of the pandemic, so there were a number of online memorials for him on ZOOM and several other platforms.

Barbara and I were on several of them together, and they were very heartfelt. It was wonderful to see her and hear her memories and reflections again. I went out to LA and spoke at Stuart’s memorial out there, and I reconnected with her, and she asked if I had any scripts. Because now, she’s a producer.

She’s gone from being a Scream Queen… well, not from, because she still is. Boy, not only does she still have the chops, but doesn’t she still look great? She still looks really a lot like she looked back then when she walked down that hall to that crazy Walpurgisnacht at the end of Re-Animator. I think the only thing missing are the ‘80s shoulder pads! Now she wears a producer’s hat. She’s a really successful and savvy producer and has some really cool partners.

So, she asked me if I had a script, and I sent her this script for The Thing on the Doorstep, which had been sitting around for, frankly, a couple of decades. It had been repeatedly optioned and not done. Always for the same reason, and I’ll let you guess what that reason is. So, I sent it to her, and she loved it and said, “Let’s see if we can do this.”

Once she connected Joe Lynch with it, it was a go-project. Joe had another tweak he wanted to do with it. It was a twist that he wanted to tell in the story, and I’m so grateful that he did, because when you sit with a story and do some minor rewrites of it for decades, you sort of get locked into it for certain perceptions of how the characters are, who the characters are, and how the story works.

Joe’s twist allowed me to see the story in a new way. And it was still telling the same story, but to see it and tell it with new life really worked, and it connected Joe and I. My standard line about writing film is that every film has three writers: the writer, the director, and the editor. So, it was great to work with Joe, because he can really tell a film story. It was a thrill to get him involved, not just because he got the movie made, but because he got the movie made really well. It tells a story, and I’m so happy.

Heather Graham falling in Suitable Flesh
RLJE Films and Shudder

Horror Geek Life: Now that you’ve returned from a screenwriting hiatus for Suitable Flesh, do you plan on writing more screenplays?

Dennis Paoli: Hiatus! Yes, are you referring to the writer’s strike? We were just on strike for five months, and the funny thing is, as I said, I’d been an academic for a long time, but I retired from my teaching job at Hunter College right before the pandemic, and then I wrote and decided I was going to go on writing.

We got this script done, did repeated revisions, and we’re ready to go, and suddenly there’s a writer’s strike. And I’m walking around picketing and reflecting that I’m probably the only guy out here who is both retired and on strike at the same time, and it was very strange.

Now that the strike is over, yeah, I’ve got a number of projects sitting around that I would like to develop. I’ve got a couple of outlines out there with people for adaptations, and one of them is out there with Barbara and Joe, if they want to go forward with it. So, we’ll see. I got plans. I got serious plans!

They’re not all in the horror or horror-humor genre, but a lot of them are, so I’m looking forward to not just working on them, but seeing them done.

Horror Geek Life would like to thank Dennis Paoli for his time and a wonderful interview. You can watch Paoli’s newest film, Suitable Flesh, starting October 27th, 2023, in limited theaters and on VOD services. Watch the Red Band trailer of Suitable Flesh here. 

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