The Suckling (1990)

One of the things I look forward to most every Overlook Film Fest is their vendor partnership with Vinegar Syndrome, who usually bring a table of pervy, schlocky products to peddle in the festival’s shopping mall lobby.  There are certainly cheaper ways to shop for Vinegar Syndrome titles; the boutique Blu-ray label is infamous in genre-nerd circles for their generous Black Friday sales.  Still, that annual trip to the Vinegar Syndrome table at Overlook is the closest feeling I still get to browsing the Cult section at long-defunct video rental stores like Major Video. There’s just no beating the physical touch of physical media. The staff always points me to titles I would’ve overlooked if I were just scrolling on their website, too, which is how I got around to seeing gems like Nightbeast & Fleshpot on 42nd Street in the past.  Sidestepping the shipping costs doesn’t hurt either.  Vinegar Syndrome has never before complimented my Overlook experience quite as decisively nor directly as it did this year, though, when the vendor rep nudged me into picking up a copy of the early-90s creature feature The Suckling.  It was perfect timing, since I had just wandered from a screening of the couture-culture body horror Appendage, which featured a great rubber monster puppet but had no real grit or texture to it elsewhere.  You could feel the audience pop every time the retro, gurgling monster appeared onscreen, which unfortunately becomes less frequent as the film chases down mental health metaphors instead of practical-effects gore gags.  I liked Appendage okay, but I left it starving for more rubber monster mayhem, which that Blu-ray restoration of The Suckling immediately supplied in grotesque HD excess.  God bless Vinegar Syndrome for coming through that night and, for balance, Hail Satan too.

While The Suckling may have a major advantage over Appendage in its commitment to rubber-monster puppetry, it’s an extremely inferior product in terms of political rhetoric.  Instead of pursuing a thoughtful, responsible representation of women’s bottled-up familial, romantic, and professional frustrations in the modern world, The Suckling pursues a politically reckless subversion of women’s right to choose.  Only, I don’t get the sense that it meant to say anything coherently political at all.  This is a kind of anti-choice, pro-environmentalist creature feature where an aborted, toxically mutated fetus gets its revenge on the brothel-clinic that brought it into this sick, sad world.  It knows that abortion is enough of a hot-button political issue to grab jaded, seen-it-all horror audiences’ attention, but it doesn’t know what to do with that thorny subject except to milk it for easy shock value.  The illegal dumping of toxic waste that mutates the aborted fetus into the titular monster is just as much of underbaked political messaging, a boneheaded matter of course that got no more thoughtful consideration than its knock-off John Carpenter score.  The Suckling uses abortion as lazy rage-bait marketing, even going as far as to hand out fake, miniature aborted fetuses in jars as mementos during its original New Jersey grindhouse run.  Personally, I found being offended by the movie’s amorphous politics part of its grimy charm. It’s not a full-on Troma style edgelord comedy at pregnant women’s expense, but it’s still playing with thematic heft that’s way out of its depth as a dumb-as-rocks monster flick.  By contrast, Appendage is way more coherent & agreeable politically but loses a lot of texture by prioritizing that agreeability over its titular monster, and The Suckling is way more memorable in its commitment to political tastelessness.

Set in 1970s Brooklyn to make its indulgence in post-Halloween slasher tedium feel relevant to the plot, The Suckling follows a young, timid couple’s visit to a seedy brothel that doubles as an illegal abortion clinic.  Once their fetus is flushed down the toilet by the clinic’s nursetitutes, it’s greeted by illegally dumped toxic waste in Brooklyn’s sewers, then rapidly evolves like a flesh-hungry Pokémon until it becomes a Xenomorphic killing machine.  Its fetal killing powers are supernatural and vaguely defined, turning the brothel-clinic into a womblike prison by covering all the doors & windows with fleshy membrane so it can hunt down its freaked-out prisoners one at a time.  Once Skinamrinked in this liminal space for days on end, the Suckling’s victims turn on one another in violent fits of cabin fever, to the point where their infighting has a higher kill count than the monster attacks.  The sex workers are, of course, the highlights among the cast, especially the mafiosa madame Big Mama and her world-weary star employee Candy, who frequently fires off nihilistic zingers like “I hope we die in this fucking sewer” as if she were telling knock-knock jokes.  The only time we see them at work is before the Suckling gets loose in the house’s plumbing, in a scene where a teenage dominatrix pegs a jackass businessman with a vibrator wand while rolling her eyes in boredom.  Otherwise, they’re just killing time between Suckling attacks, to the point where the film becomes a kind of perverse hangout comedy in which every joke is punctuated by a violent character death.  The longer they’re trapped in the house the looser the logic gets, taking on a dream-within-a-dream abstraction that had me worried it would end with the abortion-patient mother waking up in the brothel-clinic waiting room and fleeing from the procedure.  Thankfully, the ending goes for something much grander & stranger that I will not do the disservice of describing in text.

The Suckling is not a perfect movie, but it is a perfect This Kind Of Movie, delivering everything you could possibly want to see out of schlock of its ilk: a wide range of rubber monster puppets, over-the-top character work, stop-motion buffoonery, and opportunities to feel offended without ever being able to exactly pinpoint its politics.  It’s New Jersey outsider art, the only directorial credit for local no-namer Francis Teri.  You can feel Teri’s enthusiasm in every frame, just as often resonating in the film’s off-kilter compositions as in its rubber-puppet monster attacks.  I don’t know if it’s the cleaned-up Blu-ray image talking, but The Suckling does feel like it belongs to a higher caliber than most made-on-the-weekends subprofessional horrors of the video store era, turning its cheapness & limited scope into an eerie, self-contained dreamworld instead of an excuse for laziness.  The only place where the film is lazy is in its political messaging, which makes the entire medical practice of abortion look as grotesquely fucked up as how the Texas Chainsaw family runs their slaughterhouse.  And I haven’t even gotten into its hackneyed depiction of mental institutions.  Whether you can overlook that political bonheadedness to enjoy the boneheaded monster action it sets the stage for is a matter of personal taste but, given how hungry the Appendage audience was for more rubber monster puppetry, I assume this movie has plenty potential fans out there who need to seek it out ASAP – whether on Blu-ray or on Tubi.  If anything, there should’ve been a long line in the Overlook lobby leading to the Vinegar Syndrome table where the entire Appendage audience queued up to buy a copy.  It’s wonderfully fucked up stuff, and exactly what I was looking for that night.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “The Suckling (1990)

  1. Pingback: Podcast #185: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) & Classic Dolly | Swampflix

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