In Swallowed, writer-director Carter Smith offers a potent and heady mix of queasy body horror and poignant queer drama, with some bonus cat-and-mouse thriller vibes in the third act. Aspiring porn star Benjamin (Cooper Koch) is preparing to leave his backwoods town in Maine for a lucrative new opportunity in Los Angeles. When his best friend Dom (Jose Colon) takes him out for a night of dancing to celebrate (and say goodbye), the two seem to be sharing an idyllic, if bittersweet, final night together. But when Dom insists on making a brief stop on the way home, the pair are pulled into a nightmarish ordeal that will change their lives—or end them.
Determined to send Benjamin off to California with a pocket full of cash, Dom has arranged to provide cross-border mule services for his cousin’s girlfriend, a menacing drug trafficker named Alice (played by the always magnetic Jena Malone). When Dom balks at a change of plans that have him carrying the mysterious, pod-shaped contraband in his stomach, rather than his pockets, Alice pulls a gun and forces both men to swallow the strange deliverables. While they make it across the border without incident, a chance encounter at a rest-stop en route to their final destination throws the plan off the rails, with terrifying and tragic consequences.
Although Malone and Mark Patton (who plays Alice’s kingpin boss as quietly dangerous, gleefully deranged, or weakly pathetic in turn) deliver top-tier performances, the relationship between Benjamin and Dom is the heart and soul of the film, and Koch and Colon share a lived-in chemistry and natural intimacy that greatly enhances the stakes. While never over-the-top, the body horror is unsettling and probably unforgettable, introducing a refreshingly unique concept and featuring fantastic creature design.
Alexander W. Lewis’s cinematography is visually captivating. The dynamic handheld camera work by Zachary Kertesz breathes with the action, ratcheting up the tension as our beleaguered protagonists grapple with gun-wielding drug dealers, bigoted rednecks, or wince-inducing “extractions,” and offering uneasy respite during the film’s quieter scenes. The film features an excellent, hauntingly atmospheric score by Christopher Bear, drummer of the dreamy baroque indie-rock band Grizzly Bear, and a relentlessly catchy opening track (“Narcisc0” by Rina Mushonga, which I’ll be playing on repeat for the next week).
Queerness permeates this film, from the casting (um, hello, Mark Patton was the original queer horror icon for his role in Nightmare on Elm Street 2) to the characters (five of the seven characters appearing onscreen are explicitly queer), the plot (Benjamin and Dom’s yearning and sexual tension are palpable) to the production team. The rise of exceptional indie queer horror of late has me hopeful for greater mainstream enthusiasm in the near future. These are the stories that I want to see on the big screen—even if I spend 1/3 of the film squirming in my seat.
You can catch Swallowed at the Fantasia International Film Festival on Monday, July 18th.