In 2006, Carter Smith made a short film called Bugcrush, a disturbing horror short film based on a story by Scott Treleaven. Bugcrush is about a gay high school teenager who becomes obsessed with the edgy new kid in school and who, eventually, introduces him to a strange new drug. The short took home the Sundance Short Filmmaking Award and feels like a side story in the universe of his latest feature film Swallowed.
Smith’s latest film relies heavily on the story that Treleaven created set against the backdrop of a Maine border town, not unlike the Sagadahoc County town Smith grew up in. The film quickly places us in the middle of the lives of an aspiring gay porn star, Benjamin (Cooper Koch), and his straight best friend, Dom (Jose Colon), the night before Ben leaves for the West Coast. Dom coordinates a drug-running operation with his sister’s girlfriend Alice (Jena Malone), moving product across the Canadian border to surprise his friend with extra money for his trip. All Dom has to do is swallow several little bags and pass them naturally, but of course, things don’t go quite as planned.
When the two make it over the border, an altercation leaves Dom paralyzed under the effects of the abnormal drugs he’s put into his system, and Carter Smith’s body horror opus begins. Now, this isn’t The Fly or Videodrome, Swallowed is less surreal science-fiction and much more pragmatic. We rarely think about the people that make choices such as Dom’s to run drugs across the border or judge them as societal outliers and villains. The drugs that Dom ingests begin having an effect on him, and the horror lies in both the eyes of Benjamin, and in the unknown substance coursing through Dom’s body.
Swallowed is a completely queer horror experience right from the start that doesn’t bend to the will of commercial film standards. And the best part is how f*cking fantastic the movie is because of it. The characters aren’t toned down or over-the-top, operating with the idea of a heteronormative audience in mind or holding back out of some regard for arcane studio viability standards. We see the world entirely through the lens of queer characters, and the experience is better because of it.
Smith tosses us into the indie movie deep end with a quick exposition, introducing Dom and Benjamin moments before a conversation brimming with sexual tension takes place between the two. There’s a clear intimacy between these two characters, regardless of Dom’s heterosexual insistence. The actors embodying these roles are intrepid in their approach, creating a relatable bond between two people in mere minutes, connecting the viewer via a spectrum of relatable human emotions, and getting the viewer to root for them. Their anticipatory build-up and revelatory moments are the only calm the audience gets before journeying through hell with these characters.
Dom and Ben’s nightmare starts as soon as they meet Alice and are forced to do the job after wanting to back out because of how little they know about what they’re carrying. I’ll never understand why we don’t have more films featuring Jena Malone. She’s a continually standout actress in any movie, and reteaming with her Ruins director here, she shines as Alice.
Jose Colon receives his first IMDb credit with Swallowed, though you’d never know. Colon, as Dom, undergoes one of the film’s most intense sequences, and all the viewer can think of is how unflinchingly cruel it is to these characters. Even the horror on Ben’s face for the certain necessary acts he needs to execute to keep Dom alive are as heart-wrenching to watch as they are uncomfortable.
Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the phenomenal cast, which later includes A Nightmare on Elm Street 2’s Mark Patton as Alice’s hotheaded boss. We’ve seen iterations of Patton’s character before in all manner of gangster films, but in Swallowed, Patton brings to life a villain full of personality unlike any before. Simultaneously charming and threatening, his need to be liked is mixed with a strong need to be in control, making for a volatile concoction but a more honest rendition than most.
And that’s one of the themes in Swallowed. Even with the taut atmosphere and heart-pounding tension of bad situations getting worse, the film dismisses the expectations of the rest of the world and stays true to itself. These characters may seem unlikely or their archetypes unbecoming of stereotypical gay movie characters, but they’re not. Like Dom says, “Guys like that live everywhere.” And the situations, both invasive and affecting, could concern anybody. Even a little town at the Canadian border can have a seedy underbelly where maniacal queer people are kingpins.
While Patton is scene-stealing in the role, the third act, which he’s primarily a part of, is also the most out of sync. Shifting this drug-runner body horror into a bottled-up survival film and the rhythm the film started with changes. Regardless, Smith has created a film that engages, engrosses, and envelops the viewer throughout.
Swallowed had me on the edge of my seat almost right away, and as it got weirder, I was only more captivated. The script is excellent, the direction is impeccable, and the acting is perfect. Scenes are uncomfortable, to the point your body will tighten, squirm, and spasm, making for a damn good start to this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.