Carter Smith’s feature debut, 2008’s The Ruins, unleashed brutal body horror, not for the squeamish. While the director’s latest, Swallowed, presents a return to the realm of body horror, it adheres closer to the queer life crisis theme of Smith’s Into the Dark: Midnight Kiss with its overarching narrative. Body horror incites a metamorphosis for its lead character and the shifting genres.
Lifelong friends Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) spend one final night out on the dance floor before Benjamin makes a life-changing move from their small town to Los Angeles. Benjamin’s intimidated by the big city and landing a lead role in a gay porn production. He’s excited about the freedom of being himself. But he’s also sad to leave Dom behind, for whom he harbors unrequited love. Dom decides to send Benjamin off with a sum of cash to fall back on just in case, leading to a drug run that goes horrifically awry that descends into a backwoods nightmare of crime and bugs.
Smith, who wrote the film, enlists The Ruins’ collaborator Jena Malone to bring the necessary intensity to kick things into high gear. Her tough-as-nails drug dealer character, Alice, holds Dom and Benjamin at gunpoint, forcing the pair to smuggle strange bundles of drugs across the border into Canada by swallowing them. Her fierce urgency instills dread that only increases as every single bit of her careful instructions get derailed by mishaps and events outside of the best friends’ control. It’s here that the body horror kicks, with a terrified Benjamin watching helplessly as Dom succumbs to excruciating pain, bizarre symptoms, and gross-out revelations.
Malone’s character also drives the entire plot forward, escorting the lost leads from set piece to set piece. She needs to move the precious cargo before it becomes financially unviable. Before long, the potential for transgressive body horror gets squandered by a back half more interested in exploring the horrors of a sexual predator nestled within a crime thriller. It’s here that Benjamin gets stripped bare, literally and figuratively, as he’s forced to find an inner strength to survive his harrowing circumstances.
Benjamin’s journey, sandwiched between bookending scenes, seems a specific and personal one of overcoming perilous trials, heartbreak, and identity. The supporting characters don’t offer much beyond servicing Benjamin’s arc. Though energetic and more engaging than any other player on screen, Malone can’t work around abrupt and disingenuous about-face. While Colon fearlessly sells the hell out of his body horror moments, there’s not much else to Dom beyond his closeness with Benjamin. Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) brings an unexpected take on the usual archetypical crime boss. Still, the too-on-the-nose dialogue can be as distracting as the sudden shift into a different genre. So, too, are character conclusions that feel more like corner cuts than organic endings.
Swallowed squanders so much of its body horror potential. Reveals of what the drug satchels contain elicit a visceral reaction, as do retrieval methods. There’s an unflinching quality to it, but promises of blood and pus never follow suit, and the shift to focus on Benjamin in a predatorial scenario is tonally jarring. The body horror element feels more like an underbaked metaphor of a transformation from scared larva to confident butterfly that doesn’t cohesively fit into the shifting genre-bender.
Those expecting a more straightforward horror movie with gnarly body horror will likely come away disappointed. Smith merely uses it as a stepping stone for a profoundly personal, character focused story of trauma and queer identity. Smith introduces many interesting ideas and concepts and a few stomach-churning moments but struggles to tie them all together seamlessly. A strong, dread-inducing, horror-fueled first half comes undone by a jolting shift into campier, crime-heavy territory.
Swallowed made its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival.