Things have been building to this moment for a while, but ever since films like Julia Ducournau’s Raw crossed over to find a mainstream audience — along with the emergence of the “elevated” horror subgenre and its associated online ecosystem of video essay devotees — the term “body horror” has been in serious danger of devolving into a hollow marketing term, readily deployed to give an aura of credibility to otherwise bland work, while catering to an audience that, unless encouraged by puffed-up think pieces or YouTubers willing to explain the themes to them, wouldn’t be caught dead watching a horror film. Even Alex Garland’s trite #YesAllMen tract Men was touted as a provocative genre exercise, complete with a calculated, “do you get the metaphor?” body horror climax. In contrast, Carter Smith’s past work on films such as The Ruins stood out as gnarly and gleefully mean-spirited, and the “queer” descriptor in Swallowed‘s “queer body horror” marketing tag could very well be indicative of a characteristically queer provocation in the vein of John Waters, James Robert Baker, or the sadomasochistic extremes of Hisayasu Satô’s cinema of cruelty.
Fresh-faced twentysomething Benjamin (Cooper Koch) dreams of making it big as a gay porn star in L.A. Before moving there from his sleepy little town in Maine, he spends his last night partying with his best friend Dom (Jose Colon), who wants to send Benjamin off with a going-away present in the form of cold, hard cash. All they need to do is deliver a package over the US/Canadian border. Predictably, things go south fairly quickly when their contact, Alice (Jena Malone), holds the duo at gunpoint and forces them to smuggle the mysterious drugs inside their bodies, instructing the pair to message her once they pass the condom-wrapped contraband at a rest stop. They make it across the border but are confronted by a homophobic trucker, who accuses the two of cruising for sex and viciously punches Dom in the stomach. One of the condoms inside ruptures, releasing the drugs into his body and turning their drug run from a chance for easy money into a full-blown catastrophe.
Even with its subtle genre nods, Swallowed is a disappointingly tame and thoroughly dull work, the film’s brisk 95-minute runtime containing only the faintest traces of conviction, transgression, or even excitement really. Not only that, but the promised body horror angle — quite transparently included as a marketing gimmick — never coheres into anything substantive beyond some quick shots of wriggly weirdness, largely untethered from any apparent thematic preoccupations the film otherwise has. Its minimal, no-frills plot is executed with all the cinematic flair of a student film, and the script leans heavily into an unbecoming indie affect — sometimes bordering on the amateurish — that has been pestering American cinema for almost two decades at this point. Stilted dialogue and unconvincing performances aside, Smith’s direction rarely succeeds at generating any thrills from the decently intriguing premise he sets up for himself, and the story hits a complete dead end by the time the flamboyant, Joe Exotic-esque villain Rich (Mark Patton) enters the film.
Having made a name for himself as Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 — a film laden with homoerotic themes and subtext that, incidentally, the film’s screenwriter, David Chaskin, himself somehow didn’t pick up on – Mark Patton’s Rich is brought into the fold as a kind of big bad, a cut-throat drug dealer so ruthless that even the hard-nosed Alice is intimidated by him. Too bad, then, that Patton’s campy theatrics couldn’t be less threatening if he tried. His arrival spells doom for the already slender narrative, as the film grinds to a halt and never really gets going again, meandering about for what feels like hours until the end credits finally roll – intercut with a bizarre and out-of-place red carpet interview segment. The half-baked mind games between Benjamin and Rich that make up most of the third act, are devoid of any kind of tension or psychological depth, and the film barely limps over the finish line with a final confrontation that culminates in an old outhouse — a scene that really should’ve been way more satisfying, and a lot funnier, than it ends up being.
Even when judged as a small-scale DIY production, Swallowed is pared down to a fault and fails to sustain its bare-bones plot after a passable first half, devolving into a messy, clumsy, and overly campy slog. Smith’s attempt at telling an unabashedly queer horror story without resorting to representational pandering is admirable — especially given the level of self-importance and didacticism horror audiences are so often subjected to these days — but when the results are this unexciting, it hardly makes a difference.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 3.