Guest Post by Shannon McGrew
Writer-director Carter Smith first appeared on my radar with his 2008 adaptation of Scott B. Smith’s terrifying novel, “The Ruins.” An underappreciated horror film that is a masterclass in building dread, I was shocked to see Smith fade into horror obscurity shortly after its release. That is until 2019 when his queer horror slasher, Midnight Kiss, was released as part of Blumhouse’s horror anthology, Into the Dark. In Smith’s latest film, Swallowed, he once again returns to the genre focusing on a storyline that pushes the boundaries of conventional body-horror when two queer friends find themselves in a precarious situation after a drug run goes bad.
Set in a remote township on the border between Maine and Canada, Swallowed introduces us to Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) who have been best friends since they were kids – and Benjamin has been in love with Dom for almost that long. But the time has come for Benjamin to leave their tiny hometown for a place where he can be himself – and maybe find someone to love him back. On their bittersweet, final night together before Benjamin heads to sunny LA for a bright future in gay adult film industry, Dom decides to send him off with a wade full of cash. All he has to do is deliver a package over the border for a friend. After the drug run goes bad, these two friends must survive a horrific night in a backwoods hell of drugs, bugs, and obscene intimacy.
Body-horror is one of those subgenres that makes most people’s skin crawl, rightfully so. Smith has never been one to shy away from gore in his films and Swallowed is no different. Whether it’s pus filled sacs or violent encounters, Carter makes it a point to never pull the camera away no matter how uncomfortable the audience may get. We are front and center with the action, whether we like it or not. The film also features graphic nudity and acts that aren’t typically seen in heteronormative horror films. I will be the first to admit that I was shocked to see one of the characters fisting another character, but in the context of what was occurring it made total sense. For me, I love when a film is willing to push the boundaries of cinema and, consequently, its viewers, and Swallowed takes that challenge to another level.
The overall focus of the film is the relationship between Benjamin and Dom, played by Cooper Koch and Jose Colon, respectively. One of the biggest differences between these actors is their experience and, unfortunately, that translates onto the screen. Dom is a complex character and Colon doesn’t yet have the chops needed to have brought that character to life in an impactful way. Especially against such seasoned actors as Mark Patton and Jena Malone, who was incredibly underutilized. On the other hand, Koch, who’s performance starts off rather flat, really shines during the second half of the film when he and Mark Patton’s character go head to head. Speaking of Mark Patton, he is by and far the star of the show. Dressed in his best Tiger King-inspired apparel, Patton plays a drug kingpin with pizzazz having such dialogue as “You have dick teased the wrong queen, bitch!” However, it’s not all fun and games especially when we really see how deranged his character is. And those are the moments where Patton really shows his chops.
Where The Ruins and Into the Dark: Midnight Kiss felt more focused and contained, Swallowed on the other hand felt disordered. This could be the result of budgetary restraints or the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry, especially independent films. Additionally, Smith tended to linger longer than necessary on the actors during moments of turmoil. Because of this, those instances which should be filled with impending doom become distracting and odd. A lot of these moments centered around the character of Dom groaning (both from pain and pleasure) from the effect of the drugs he swallowed. Personally, this happened so often that as a viewer it took my focus away from film and impacted the severity of the situation that these characters found themselves in.
Overall, Swallowed featured some great ideas that push boundaries, but unfortunately could have benefitted from more experienced actors, tighter editing, and a more fleshed out story. That said, what I appreciate most about Smith and Swallowed, in particular, is it subverts the notion that these type of characters need to be heterosexual cisgender men. That in and of itself is refreshing and something that should be shown in film more. Ultimately, Swallowed may not have worked for me for the reasons I listed above, but I fully believe it will find its intended audience and eventually become a queer horror cult classic.
Swallowed screened at the Overlook Film Festival June 4, 2022.
Swallowed featured some great ideas that push boundaries, but unfortunately could have benefitted from more experienced actors, tighter editing, and a more fleshed out story. That said, what I appreciate most about Smith and Swallowed, in particular, is it subverts the notion that these type of characters need to be heterosexual cisgender men. That in and of itself is refreshing and something that should be shown in film more. Ultimately, Swallowed may not have worked for me for the reasons I listed above, but I fully believe it will find its intended audience and eventually become a queer horror cult classic.