Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Overlook Film Festival Swallowed Review- An Intriguing Body Horror Premise

Premiering at the Overlook Film Festival, Swallowed is an intimate and grotesque body horror story of growth, crime, and bugs.

Official Trailer Screengrab

I wasn’t sure what to think of Swallowed when I received it, along with a warning from the production company. It stated this would be triggering and feature some uncomfortable body horror scenes. Horror is transcendently grotesque. Martyrs, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist are repulsive. They’re meant to be. If you don’t feel slightly gagged out and intrigued simultaneously, you aren’t a fan. Carter Smith, whose first feature, The Ruins, was a seethingly brutal slice of body horror, returns to that melting pot of natural and unnatural with disgusting if not always perfect results.

It works as a queer horror film because it is unquestionably disturbing and unabashedly queer. It also has the same claustrophobic and tense mood as Smith’s other works. I loved The Ruins. Swallowed shares some of the same DNA while forging a new path. There’s an interesting premise here that is more like a weird hybrid of The Bay and the sh#t weasels from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. I was never exactly sure what would happen and whether I wanted it to or not. It’s that kind of film that dares you to watch.

On their last night together, before Ben(Cooper Koch) heads off to Los Angeles to become an adult film star, his best friend Dom(Jose Colon) takes him out for a night of drinking and dancing. Unfortunately, he detours to make some quick cash on the way home so his best friend will have something to fall back on in the big city. That one decision alters their night and, ultimately, their lives. The result is a night of drug-fueled nightmares, impossibly strange bugs, and intimacy that should be spared for romantic partners.

When the pair are forced to swallow bundles of unknown substances to be smuggled over the border into Canada by a fiercely menacing and hardened Jena Malone(Alice), doing what she does best, the body horror elements click into high gear. As the situation spirals out of control, Ben must watch helplessly as Dom succumbs to something horrific and beyond their control.

There are some surprisingly tender moments in between all the male gazing and pooping of baggies that reads true. These two best friends genuinely care for one another, making the film that much better. I was invested in them and their plight despite the fact that they made a horrendous choice. Malone, who also starred in The Ruins, is a lower-level employee of this bizarre backwoods enterprise. No one does tough girl better, and she glares her way through early scenes before letting hints of fear show on her hardened face. She is the literal and figurative driver of the plot. Alice also provides the ticking clock by which the remainder of the film is beholden.

A tonal shift occurs when she delivers the innocent duo to her employer’s cabin. Swallowed morphs into a crime thriller with nauseating elements of sexual abuse and body horror. Mark Patton is a queer Yosemite Sam-esque kingpin with more swagger than he deserves and a mile-long predatory streak. It is here that Smith’s work feels most personal. I can’t help but wonder if some of Ben and Dom came from Smith’s own life. Alice’s strange about-face later in the film does not feel as authentic, and even Malone can’t save it from feeling forced. Colon sells the unfolding body horror as he writhes, grimaces, and, most disturbing of all, exalts in his friend’s arms. This is Ben’s story, though, and Koch is vulnerable and tough in equal measure.

Written and directed by Carter Smith, it is a wonder Swallowed got made at all. With hardly any backing and very little help, Smith brought his vision to life with sweat, couch cushion money, and willpower. Smith isn’t afraid to show everything. He knows precisely when to linger on shots and when to pull away to show just enough to make you squirm. While the promise of what is inside the baggies is never fully realized, the potential was there. What is being smuggled is horrifying, and as a metaphor for becoming a confident, fully realized person, I can appreciate the message. No one should be forced to swallow pain, prejudice, and abuse. Still, the jarring back half shift in genre is confusing. A surprising amount of humor helps that.

There’s something naughty about the word swallowed. It might be the heterosexual girl in me that giggles a little. This film which is as gross as it is cheeky, plays on that double entendre. Yet, for all the gagginess, there is also humor. Ben and Dom find themselves in a terrible position, but Smith knows how to swerve and deliver laughs even if they are uncomfortable ones. Granted, most of those are mean-spirited and gross, but I dare you not at least to smile when a well-placed outhouse is used as the Chekhov’s gun we all desperately wanted it to be.

There will be a lot written about Swallowed, and I’m not convinced all of it will be good. Swallowed won’t be for everyone. There are a lot of triggers in it that will turn some viewers off. You will be disappointed for those looking for a more straightforward body horror story. As a deeply personal story of growth, it works better. This film might have been better-suited split into two different movies, allowing each genre to shine. The heavily dread-filled first half could have unleashed a torrent of nastiness, and Patton’s over-the-top crime boss has a strange magnetism I would have loved to explore in a different movie.

Like a hideous love child of Blue Velvet, Slither, and Revenge, it is hard to define, but anyone who saw Jamie Marks is Dead and The Ruins will recognize Smith’s stamp. Both are oppressively tense with great performances and smartly chosen shots. Smith knows how to capture the gorgeous in the grotesque and the absurd in the overtly terrifying. Find all our Overlook Film Festival coverage here.