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I actually enjoyed and admired The Suckling in some ways. The plot and the tone of the film are both absurd and disturbing--two properties that I love in artworks. It possesses one of the most important qualities for a film to have--passion from the cast and crew to do something artistically interesting. On the other hand, The Suckling is marred by horrendous performances and a fair amount of technical incompetence.
Humorously, the film begins with scrolling text implying that The Suckling is based on a true story. It tells of an unsolved massacre in a "whorehouse and abortion clinic", and suggests that the filmmakers, such as director Francis Teri, believe the account of the sole survivor of the massacre--a woman whom the authorities believed to be insane. From there, we cut to a surreal sequence where a woman is accosted in bed and taken to a seedy hospital, complete with a topless nurse walking down the corridor with a bloody axe. Sadly, this turns out to be one of those "this was all just a dream" openings. We then change gears to a young couple. We quickly figure out that they are visiting the whorehouse/abortion clinic. The film shows us the "true story" of the massacre.
The story is set in the early 1970s. The quality of the film (meaning the physical quality of the actual material this was shot on) and various other visual cues all say "early 70s". However, the film's publication date was 1990, and there are other visual cues (such as some clothing and hair styles) that set The Suckling firmly in the late 1980s. The crux of the story is that the protagonist is visiting an illegal abortion clinic, which explains why the film would be set in the early 1970s--prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), but this emphasizes two very unusual aspects of this film. One, it's a very low budget independent "grindhouse"-styled horror flick that happens to be written and directed as a period film, and two, it very subtly, though inexpertly, captures its period. Those are indications of a concern for a subtler artistry that isn't usually attributed to this film.
The abortion stuff could be seen as having a moral/political subtext. Although the graphic scenes are ridiculously humorous in one respect, they're also unsettling. Abortion is shown as a pretty nasty business, but on the other hand, this is an illegal abortion clinic, and Teri could be seen as making the argument that if abortion is made illegal again--even though abortion is disturbing--people are still going to get abortions in places like this. When we consider that subtext, it makes more sense that The Suckling was written and filmed during the Reagan era in the U.S., a time when the "Moral Majority" gave it their best shot to turn the country into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy.
The overall tone of the film is often close to Frank Henenlotter's early work, such as Basket Case (1982); it has that same heavy 1970s subculture-grime feel. That's one of the assets of the film, as are the creature and other special effects, which are also reminiscent of Henenlotter, who is fond of twisted, darkly comic and ironic "morality plays".
I'm a huge Henenlotter fan. I don't think his films are "so bad they're good", I think they're often legitimate masterpieces. Both Basket Case and Frankenhooker (1990) are among my favorite films of all time. Even though The Suckling does a fair job creating a rough Henenlotter-styled atmosphere, it falls far short of his excellence, primarily because of the performances, the scriptwriting and the awkwardness of many of the technical elements, such as the editing.
Not every performance in The Suckling is awful, but too many are. Luckily, some of the worst offenders are in bit roles, such as the short doctor in the bookends. Occasionally, the performances are sublimely bad ("so bad they're good") due to a confluence of actor and script. For example, the blonde prostitute has a natural propensity for a combination of cheese and overacted melodrama, but when she utters lines like, "All these guys want to do these days is shoot their load in your face", the result is (probably unintentionally) hilarious. The script has our "heroes" flabbergasted by a gurgling toilet with a moving but closed lid ("Try jiggling the handle again" says the blonde prostitute), it has a bizarre "comic" S&M scene, and it has a lot of melodrama caused by conflicting macho attitudes from the house pimps and "bodyguards", as well as from the house madam, Big Mama, who is humorously dressed like a clown, complete with Tammy Faye Baker-styled makeup for most of the film.
Although Teri is skilled at setting up shots, he runs into problems when it comes to editing them together. The pacing is slightly but frequently off. Worse, there are a couple sections of repeated footage as padding. There is also padding in the plot. It seems like Teri had some good ideas, but had a problem stretching them out to feature length. The middle of the film devolves into a very pedestrian Ten Little Indians knock-off sequence that slows the film to a crawl. The score doesn't help, either. It's hokey at best, annoying at worst.
The principal sets/locations are also a bit unimaginative. It's a shame, because a few locations--such as the basement and the sewer--are visually intriguing and work well. Better yet is the bizarre biological stuff surrounding the house. That should have been used more, but it was probably way too expensive to do. The Evil Dead-like stop motion animation should have been dropped instead.
Of course, you shouldn't bother with The Suckling unless you have a well-developed taste for this particular kind of low budget, campy but disturbing, taboo-breaking horror. If you like that stuff, there's a good chance you've at least heard about this film. You might not love it, but it's worth a look.
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