Carter Smith’s Swallowed (2022) had its International Premiere at this year’s ongoing Fantasia Film Festival, emerging as a definitive, subversive entry in the Queer Genre Cinema Spotlight, and for a good reason. Swallowed is not Smith’s first foray into body horror, as his feature debut, The Ruins, was an especially brutal entry in the genre, the kind that is definitely not for everyone. Swallowed follows in similar footsteps, as the film helms body horror in ways that are pretty uncomfortable to watch, coupling it with the bone-chilling struggles that a queer man has to navigate throughout the movie.
Swallowed opens with Benjamin (Cooper Koch) dancing in a nightclub, drenched in neon lights, happy and content that he is about to move to Los Angeles and start life afresh. His best friend Dom (Jose Colõn) spends this final night with him together and is pretty sad that his friend is leaving, and there’s visible tension between the two, exacerbated by the fact that Benjamin has feelings for Dom. Dom clearly cares a great deal about Ben and decides to make a pit stop at his cousin’s, as a means to earn a bit of money via a quick drug run to leave Ben with some cash. Things take a quick left when they run into Alice (Jena Malone), who pulls a gun on them and forces them to ingest the drugs, as she deems it a necessary part of the delivery process.
The idea of ingesting unknown drugs and extracting them later is terrifying in its own right, but the fact that Alice skirts around the question of what exactly the packages entail heighten the horror embedded within the situation. Alice reiterates time and again that the drug packets are delicate and they have to be extremely careful to make sure they do not burst whilst inside them, and the two make a stop at a public restroom across the border. Unfortunately, a redneck barges in on the two (who are simply talking inside the restroom) and punches Dom in the stomach, which causes him to double up in excruciating pain, and the worrying symptoms include a loss of sensation in the legs, disorientation, and a sustained erection throughout.
This one act of vitriolic homophobia, wherein the redneck pushes an already dire situation into terribly messy waters, propels the plot towards true, unfiltered terror. Alice returns to check up on them and asks them to go through with the drug eviction process, but the arrival of her boss (Mark Patton), who is as flamboyant and sinister (and weirdly pitiful and dangerous at once), results in a gripping, tense third act that elevates the film beyond genre thoroughfare.
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Malone, quite frankly, is quite underutilized here, as she is simply there to infuse a sense of urgency via the tough, bitchy drug dealer act, and her performance here is much more mellow than the truly sinister characters she is capable of playing, a good example being the necrophiliac Ruby in The Neon Demon. Patton is a revelation to watch, as he starts off as a cookie-cutter villain but evolves into a multifaceted dynamic character, who terrorizes Benjamin with dual threats of murder and sexual predation. Colon is perfect as the tragically doomed Dom, channeling the pain and absurdity of an extremely uncomfortable situation, wherein his bodily autonomy is snatched away and he is at the mercy of uncaring people, except his devoted friend, Benjamin.
However, Swallowed (2022) is Coch’s film, from start to finish. The camera lingers on his features, which masterfully convey every sliver of nuanced emotion with great subtlety, and he is allowed to bloom in the third act in a painfully authentic way. Coch is obviously beautiful to look at, but he employs this aspect of physical beauty to express various shades of despair, vulnerability, strength, and resilience. Swallowed is by no means a perfect film — some acting moments do fall flat, while other themes are a bit on the nose — but it is an integral entry in the queer horror genre, especially one that deals with bodily autonomy, or lack thereof.