What was once seen as a subversion within the horror community has become one of its strongest aspects. During the 1980s, many films within the genre were outwardly homophobic or transphobic. For decades this continued to be the case, but in 2022, queer-coded characters have become a staple of the genre. In the case of Swallowed from Carter Smith, the LGBTQ subtext and unspoken same-sex lust become text. Framed through a familiar story of drugs and violence, Swallowed combines body-horror and thriller aspects to craft an unsettling narrative.
After a night of partying, Dom (Jose Colon) had a surprise for Benjamin (Cooper Koch). Benjamin leaves for Los Angeles the next day, and any extra cash will help. Dom found a payday on the side, but the “easy job” quickly becomes more complicated than anticipated. Soon, the two men believe they’ll be used as drug mules. However, they soon discover the baggies they’ve swallowed contain something other than drugs.
Smith, who serves as the director and writer, builds the story around the Benjamin and Dom relationship. While Koch and Colon bring the characters to life thanks to their friendly chemistry, the screenplay digs into the nuances of male relationships. While sexuality certainly creeps into their back-and-forth, Smith’s foundation does not place at the center of their experience. Instead, their bond comes shining through, resulting in emotional vulnerability rarely seen outside the friendship. Doing so allows Smith to pepper the screenplay with eroticism around Dom’s potential bisexuality, yet never relies on sexuality alone to showcase the commitments the characters feel for one another.
The screenplay gets some additional assistance from the casting of Mark Patton. The former lead of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge continues to use his stature within the industry to provide an example for future castings. After all, his role in the famed slasher franchise became a lightning rod for queer sexuality in the genre. Patton’s casting provides some shorthand, but more importantly, adds a metatextual element to Swallowed.
Seeing Patton as a man driven by drugs and unease in his own body recalls his famed character. It also allows us to see how far the queer hero has come in horror. Patton’s unhinged character in Swallowed also gets to showcase anger and wrath reserved for the most upsetting figures in the genre. Within this context, Smith lays the groundwork to make him something of a tragic figure, even if he becomes antagonistic.
Unfortunately, Swallowed still runs into some issues. Most of these revolve around some bogs that slow down the story. It would have been nice to see click into a steady pace, but the middle of the film slows to a crawl. Additionally, the creatures we are meant to fear instead take a backseat to the dangerous humans. Sadly, this metaphor feels lacking when we are meant to fear the creatures populating the film. This undercuts a major source of tension, which ultimately weakens Swallowed down the stretch.
Despite some small missteps, Swallowed stands as one of the better thrillers of the festival. It not only features an upsetting premise, but it provides a unique lens through which to experience the story. Hopefully, more films will embrace the queer roots of horror. For Smith, Swallowed provides the screenwriting showcase that will help elevate his films moving forward. Anyone who understands characters as complex as these deserves many more shots in the director’s chair.