I’m not going to stand on a mountaintop and pronounce writer/director Carter Smith’s Swallowed as one of the best horror films of the year. I can, however, confidently say that Swallowed is one of the most important genre films of 2022...
...Having just premiered at The Overlook Film Festival, Smith’s queer horror film follows best friends Ben (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon). Ben is preparing to leave for Los Angeles where he has a career in gay porn waiting for him, and Dom has decided to take him out for one last night on the town. What Dom hasn’t told him is that he’s also set himself up to be a mule for drug dealer Alice (Jena Malone), in order to get some cash as a going away present. But when Dom learns Alice wants him to swallow bags of some unknown drug to transport them across the border, he refuses. The boys don’t realize that it’s too late to turn back…and that those bags contain something far more dangerous than cocaine.
Through heartfelt performances from Koch and Colon (who makes one hell of a memorable debut in Swallowed), Smith delivers a film that feels like Chuck Palahniuk body-horror mashed together with a crime thriller, but is at its heart a queer love story that is as honest and beautiful as it is achingly painful.
See, we never know exactly how Dom identifies—he has a girlfriend—but we do learn early on that he is in love with Ben. That’s not a spoiler. Dom makes this confession about fifteen minutes in, and it’s clear from the opening scene which sees the two dancing together at a club, his admiring eyes focused on the sexy allure of Ben through hypnotic POV shots. Soft smiles. A glint in their eyes. It’s rare to see such easy chemistry between two actors, rarer still to see between two men on screen in a backwards society that would rather close themselves off with hate than open their hearts to all love. As far as male romances go, these two are nearly on par with Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi in “Our Flag Means Death”.
Only their story is much less magical. That opening dance scene is the last time the audience is allowed to feel safe in what becomes a harrowing night of hell fraught with nail-biting tension and queasy horror.
Swallowed is a film choked with homophobic terrors that reflects the ugliness which results from such hatred. What is already a traumatic night is made more so by an incident with a redneck (Michael Shawn Curtis) that screams MAGA moron. It’s through this horrid clash that Ben and Dom discover what’s really in those bags they’re carrying in their stomachs. Brief and violent, Smith lays out on an uncomfortable platter for the audience just how quickly a simple detour at a rest stop can result in violence for queer people, with the trauma of that moment continuing to carry throughout the rest of the film in both physical and emotional ways.
What’s inside of the guts in these boys is the stuff nightmares are made of—the director of The Ruins once again tests the fortitude of horror fans’ stomachs—but the real horror lies in the objectivity of the boys and their relationship.
Dom’s admission to Ben about his feelings is a moment that is difficult, moving, and deeply personal. Yet Smith shines a scalding light on the pair and paints a heart-wrenching portrait of what it’s like to have that intimacy exposed for all the world to see. Over the course of the film, the two find themselves in various vulnerable situations that play as twisted versions of what could have been a meaningful moment between them in another setting without watchful eyes, such as seeing each other naked. But not like this. Also interesting is how Smith explores objectification through a queer lens. Both Alice and her unhinged boss (played with delicious villainy by Mark Patton, who I’m so glad to see chewing up the screen again), are queer, yet Patton’s infatuation with the boys, especially Ben, is almost as uncomfortable as the cringe-inducing horror going on within their bodies. Almost. Ben occasionally makes comments that suggest he will be safe in Los Angeles where queerness is accepted, but part of the message in Swallowed seems to be that nowhere is safe when your sexuality is scrutinized by everyone, even in your own community.
Oddly enough, despite the gripping intensity of Swallowed, Smith somehow doesn’t go quite far enough in some areas. It’s as if Smith is restraining himself, pulling back on the body-horror and shifting away from the unique terror of the movie. Set to a melancholic score with naturalistic cinematography from Alexander W. Lewis, Smith strays away from indulging in the stranger elements of the script and instead aims for something more grounded and horribly real. The choice succeeds for the most part, lending a believability to nightmarish circumstances, but as a genre fan, you can’t help but want a little more from a serving of body-horror that is more of an appetizer than a full meal. I’m impressed by Smith’s ability to balance the absurd within a story that is otherwise planted firmly in harsh reality, but the tonal shift is noticeable nevertheless.
Still, Koch’s anguished performance along with Colon, Patton and an exceptional portrayal by Malone that exudes a grief she’s fighting to control, all transform Swallowed into something that feels real, raw, and downright horrific. By no means is Swallowed easy to digest, but this is one film everyone should see.
By Matt Konopka