A Fantastic Fest 2022 Review
A bittersweet send-off descends into a body horror nightmare in Swallowed, the latest horror film from writer-director Carter Smith (The Ruins).
The film follows Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon), two friends celebrating their last night together before Benjamin moves to Los Angeles to star in gay porn. Hoping to send his friend off with a little extra cash, Dom makes a deadly mistake: agreeing to smuggle a package of drugs across the border. Unfortunately, the package isn’t what it seems, drug dealer Alice (Jenna Malone) isn’t about to let him back out, and Benjamin has no choice but to go along for the ride.
The first half of Swallowed is phenomenally tense. Malone is an intimidating presence, contrasting starkly with Koch’s teary-eyed Benjamin. As they drive through the night, Koch oscillates between grim determination and anger at the situation he’s been put in, while still managing to convey his character’s deep feelings for his friend. By the time we see something inhuman wriggling around in Dom’s underwear, we’re primed and ready for the body horror to kick into high gear.
Except, it doesn’t. Beyond sightings of a few slimy little creatures (which are, to the film’s credit, nice practical effects), Swallowed’s body horror remains teasingly restrained. Instead, the tone shifts into different territory altogether with the arrival of Mark Patton’s Rich.
The documentary Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street! detailed Patton’s exit from Hollywood following his treatment in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 way back in 1985. In Swallowed, he lets us know what we’ve been missing out on all these years. Rich is a predator through and through and Patton plays him with relish, tapping into queer villain stereotypes to deliver a fresh take on a crime overlord. The tonal shift happens a little too abruptly, but Patton’s presence is so electric that you can’t look away.
Rich’s arrival feels like the perfect opportunity for Swallowed to comment on Benjamin’s naivety about the porn industry, foreshadowed by a few cautious words from Dom in the opening scene. Unfortunately, the film leaves this avenue largely unexplored. It’s one of many ways in which Swallowed is a slightly frustrating watch, because it feels like there’s a better, bloodier film buried just underneath. Perhaps with a little more vaseline, it could have been rooted out.
But what is here is solid, anchored by strong performances from the small cast. The sudden shift into campier territory will likely hold more appeal for queer audiences, but Patton’s gleefully evil performance is an absolute joy to watch. A transgressive, scrappy little film, it’s the kind of queer horror cinema we don’t get enough of anymore.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)