at Carter Smith first feature film, 2008 The ruins, unleashed brutal body horror, not for the faint-hearted. While the latest from the director, Swallowedfeatures a return to the realm of body horror, it adheres more to Smith’s queer life crisis theme In the Dark: Midnight Kiss with its general narrative. Body horror incites the metamorphosis of its main character and shifting genres.
Lifelong friends Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) spend one last evening on the dance floor before Benjamin changes his life from their small town to Los Angeles. Benjamin is intimidated by the big city and lands a starring role in a gay porn production. He is enthusiastic about the freedom to be 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 money to fall back on just in case, which leads to a drug run that goes horribly wrong and escalates into a nightmare of crime and bugs.
Smith, who wrote the film, is appealing The ruins’ collaborater Jena Malone provide the intensity needed to move up a gear. Her tough drug dealer persona, Alice, holds Dom and Benjamin at gunpoint, forcing the pair to smuggle strange packs of drugs across the border into Canada by swallowing them. His ferocious urgency instills a fear that only increases as every detail of his painstaking instructions are derailed by accidents and events beyond the best friends’ control. This is where the body horror begins, with a terrified Benjamin watching helplessly as Dom succumbs to excruciating pain, bizarre symptoms, and crude revelations.
Malone’s character also drives the whole plot forward, escorting lost leads from one set-piece to the next. She must move the precious cargo before it becomes financially unviable. Before long, the potential for transgressive body horror is squandered by a back half more interested in exploring the horrors of a sexual predator nestled in a crime thriller. It is here that Benjamin is laid bare, literally and figuratively, as he is forced to find inner strength to survive his harrowing circumstances.
Benjamin’s journey, sandwiched between end-of-book scenes, feels specific and personal in overcoming perilous trials, grief, and identity. The supporting characters don’t offer much beyond the service of Benjamin’s arc. Although energetic and more engaging than any other player on screen, Malone can’t get around sharp, dishonest turnovers. While Colon fearlessly sells the hell out of his body horror moments, there’s not much else for Dom beyond his closeness to Benjamin. Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) brings an unexpected take on the usual crime boss archetype. Still, dialogue that’s too on-the-nose can be just as distracting as the sudden switch to a different genre. The same goes for character conclusions that feel more like corner cuts than organic ends.
Swallowed wastes so much of its body horror potential. The revelation of what’s in the medicine bags elicits a visceral reaction, as do the recovery methods. There’s an unwavering quality to it, but the promises of blood and pus never follow, and the shift to focusing on Benjamin in a predatory storyline is shocking. The body horror element is more like an undercooked metaphor of a transformation from frightened larva to confident butterfly that doesn’t fit cohesively into the genre shift.
Those expecting a simpler horror movie with gnarly body horror will likely be disappointed. Smith simply uses it as a springboard for a deeply personal, character-driven story of trauma and queer identity. Smith presents many interesting ideas and concepts and some stomach-churning moments, but struggles to tie them all together seamlessly. A strong, chilling, and horror-fueled first half unravels with an abrupt shift into campy, crime-ridden territory.
Swallowed had its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival.