Like it’s sort-of namesake, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, Carter Smith’s Swallowed deals with the kind of body horror that’s ingested orally. Unlike in that film, though, there’s a tender centre to this twisted, filthy tale of bodily functions and violence.
Dom (Jose Colon) and Benjamin (Cooper Koch) are celebrating Benjamin’s last night in town before he leaves for LA to become the next big star in gay porn. Their relationship is flirty and the love they have for each other is apparent in all their interactions, but it stops just short of romance, as Dom is straight and Benjamin very much isn’t. It’s this love that kick-starts the story, with Dom wanting to make sure that Benjamin goes to LA with some money in his pocket. It’s just one way that the tragedy of Swallowed is based on how achingly preventable the dark circumstances of the story end up being.
Dom’s plan is to secure Benjamin a bit of a nest egg by performing a drug run for his cousin’s friend, a hard-nosed but desperate drug runner named Alice (Jena Malone). Dom and Benjamin will have to transport their mysterious cargo by ingesting it and, of course, extracting it from the other end once they arrive at their destination. The exact contents of the tiny baggies isn’t revealed until later – too late – and while that reveal plays into a Cronenberg-style body horror in an interesting way. I will say that that aspect isn’t as, perhaps, transgressive as it could be in another film. Again, though, this is in service of another goal later in Swallowed’s second half.
Unlike most body horror, there’s not a ramping up of disgusting imagery in Swallowed. In fact, one might say it blows it’s considerable load fairly early. This is followed by a recession that makes you wonder if you just imagined the body horror of Swallowed’s first half. The film’s denouement is compelling in a different way, though, primarily thanks to Koch and Patton, who make the film’s conclusion into a pretty effective two-hander.
Swallowed doesn’t have the confidence of craft that Smith’s previous work The Ruins (2008) displayed, but you can’t say it doesn’t swing for the fences in expense of that. The shift in tone that happens roughly two-thirds of the way through, where Patton’s character is introduced, feels like a different movie that’s as clumsily crammed into this one as the drugs are into our protagonists. But the chaos of it isn’t entirely unenjoyable. It’s not that either the story we’re promised at the beginning or the one we eventually end up with don’t make sense, it’s that they feel fairly incongruous. This could well be intentional, in a From Dusk Till Dawn kind of way, in which case it would be working in service of bringing the audience into Benjamin’s disoriented mind-state in the second half. I’ll stop short of saying Swallowed is objectively great, but I will say that it works for me, and its cringiest moments are effective as hell.
Performance-wise in Swallowed, I don’t think there’s a bad one in the bunch. Koch anchors the film beautifully, showing a significant development in character long before Patton’s crime boss character points out that he’s “grown up fast.” For a first credit, Colon’s Dom knocks out what’s mostly a physical role, but the way he gets across the straight man pining for his gay best friend is also very worth paying attention to. Malone, as always, steals the scenes she’s in by layering her gun-toting badass character with both sympathy and empathy, even when she’s asked to portray Alice forcing a character to anally penetrate another. Mark Patton’s almost cartoonishly-queenish villain is definitely a portrayal I haven’t seen before. Whether it fully jives with the rest of the movie, I’m not sure, because the moment he minces into frame is when Swallowed turns on a dime, and that could be the result of either correlation or causation. Either way, an unapologetically disarming but sociopathic gay man as an antagonist feels fresh to me, even if he might not fit neatly into the story of Benjamin and Swallowed. It finally feels like the fulfillment of the promising career launched by his role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and whose sometimes-tragic story is told in the must-see horror documentary Scream, Queen.
Though Swallowed is far from a perfect film, it’s a solid entry into the burgeoning subsection of queer horror. It’s perhaps less outwardly scary than you might expect, preferring instead to touch on the psychological horrors of crossing the border with an illicit substance in your digestive tract, a deserted rest stop that becomes the scene of a hate crime, and the unpredictability of a truly eccentric villain. Swallowed also manages moments of unexpected tenderness, often from sources you’d least expect. For those things, I can forgive some rough edges and tonal shifts. It’s a messy business, after all.
Swallowed is part of the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival lineup. You can get more information about the film here.