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Arrow Video FrightFest 2022: Swallowed Finds a Fresh (and Queer) Avenue into Drug-Mule Story

Filmmaker Carter Smith has always told queer-centric stories (with maybe one early exception) that just so happen to fall into the horror genre. After his queer horror short Bugcrush, he was just getting started in the genre with his feature debut, 2008’s screen adaptation The Ruins, an effectively squirm-inducing (and underrated) when-vines-attack gem which has still not lost its vicious power. Jamie Marks Is Dead was a quiet, melancholy mood piece about the longing of two young men, one alive and one dead, and Smith’s contribution to Blumhouse and Hulu’s horror anthology Into the Dark was the entertaining gay holiday-slasher Midnight Kiss. Now for homegrown indie Swallowed, Smith does not take the path of least resistance.

Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) are lifelong friends spending their final night out in their small Maine town at a dive bar. Benjamin plans to go off to Los Angeles, having been cast in a gay porn shoot. Dom wants to send his friend off with a nest egg with just one quick stop, which ends up changing both of their lives. It starts with Alice (Jena Malone), a tough-as-nails drug dealer. She has Dom’s drunk cousin passed out in her jeep and, before giving Dom instructions for a drug transport, Alice holds both men at gunpoint. In order to smuggle some hot new drug across the Canadian border, Dom needs to swallow baggies of this mysterious contraband—and Benjamin gets stuck swallowing one as well. Before the friends can even make the run, Dom begins experiencing painful side effects. And that’s where we’ll stop in describing this all-nighter. 

Rich puts a gun to Benjamin's chin

How Swallowed begins in no way signals where it will lead, and that’s part of its thrill. Grounding this off-the-rails story is the friendship between Benjamin and Dom, played with emotional honesty by the beautiful Cooper Koch (just seen in They/Them) and newcomer Jose Colon. They are loyal to one another and clearly love each other, even if one of them possibly wants something more from the other. If Swallowed doesn’t initially seem like an intimate queer story—besides involving a gay man entering the gay porn industry—well…just you wait. It’s a gutsy one.

Since Alice is the one in charge at first, a scarily bossy yet subtly nuanced Jena Malone nearly steals the entire film. There’s a no-nonsense unpredictability to Alice that Malone brings, but also somehow a comfort in how she keeps her word and reveals poignant humanity before it’s too late. When she takes the two friends to see her boss Rich (Mark Patton), the film redefines itself and shifts gears into more of a backwoods crime drama. It’s a tonal shift that not everyone will take to, getting up close and personal and being in the presence of a sexual predator, but writer-director Smith finds a new (and queer) avenue into a drug-mule narrative.

At this point, the film does turn into mostly a two-hander, and it might actually be the strongest, more tensely riveting half. Cooper Koch is certainly game for the vulnerable position in which he is placed and his ready-to-strike resourcefulness and ability to seduce become compelling to watch. Then there’s Mark Patton, forever known for his “final boy” lead role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge which made him disappear from Hollywood for being outed and then met his much-deserved celebration with the vulnerable, cathartic 2020 documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. In an unprecedented role for the actor as Rich, Patton is slimy, dangerous, and darkly funny, hamming it up in a way that keeps us holding our breath and upends the “tired old queen” stereotype. 

Alice staring

Smith helms the escalating tension with a confident hand, never allowing the viewer to predict where any of it is heading or how it will all end. The story he’s telling is always a nightmare but one that grounds its two feet in the real world. Not only does Benjamin face intolerance from a local homophobe in a rest-stop bathroom, but he faces the kind of predatory discomfort that younger gay men often put up with from older men on the same team. In the end, this is Benjamin’s story—the kind of story that might even make any porn star or gay man cringe—driven by desperation by paying back the favor to his best friend who was just trying to help him out in the first place. Smith and cinematographer Alexander W. Lewis shoot everything intimately without any of it ever feeling gratuitous or prurient. Rina Mushonga’s song “Narcisco” opens and closes the film, making the experience as emotional as it is visceral. 

If one goes in expecting a full-bore Cronenbergian body-horror opus, that is not Swallowed. Sure, it has its gooey, bloody moments, and Carter has proven before that knows what he’s doing in that department. But if you want a love story gone gnarly, Swallowed stomps on your heart and does it all without lube. 

Swallowed premiered at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and will play at Arrow Video FrightFest on August 28th.

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Written by Jeremy Kibler

Jeremy is a film graduate from Penn State University, an Online Film Critics Society member, and altogether a film obsessive. He lives to watch the latest horror releases and write about them.

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