Movies · Reviews

‘Swallowed’ Sees a Friendship Burst with Bad Luck and Body Horror

What goes in, must come out.
XYZ Films
By  · Published on July 20th, 2022

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Body horror has a pustule-filled leg up on more traditional horror visuals in part because anyone and everyone can relate to the concept. We don’t all believe in monsters or ghosts, but all of us have bodies ripe for messy reactions, grotesque eruptions, and nasty leaks. Director Carter Smith knows this well as evidenced by his feature debut, 2008’s memorable adaptation of Scott Smith’s bestselling The Ruins. His time since has seen him dabbling in other genre fare, but now he’s returned to the realm of bodily terrors with the somewhat tense and unsettling Swallowed.

Ben (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) are best friends spending one last night together before the former moves to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams as a gay porn star. Dom is straight, but the evening makes it clear that maybe he’s regretting not exploring the possibilities of something more with Ben. Regardless, their love for each other is evident, and Dom wants to send his friend off as flush with cash as possible. He’s arranged an easy gig for an acquaintance named Alice (Jena Malone), but what should have been a simple drug transport turns into something far more dangerous and deadly. The friends are forced at gunpoint to swallow balloons filled with — something — and deliver them across the border into Canada, but an encounter with a homophobic asshole leaves Dom with a bruised stomach and a potentially ruptured balloon. The evening only gets worse from there.

Swallowed unfolds in three stages, from intimate friendship to drug mule body horror to a face-off with a sexual predator, and each stretch is slightly less effective than the last. Smith, who wrote the film as well, seems interested in telling a personal tale of queer expectations and downfalls, but while early scenes show promise on the introduction of some horrifying and tense elements the third act abruptly shifts gears in less appealing directions.

The film is at its strongest in the early scenes between Ben and Dom. We first meet them dancing, and while it’s not sexual it’s captured with an intimate eye for the emotions, feelings, and urges nestled just beneath the surface. The concern and love these two feel for each other is powerful, and we’re instantly drawn to their friendship. Both actors do strong work here, with Koch in particular expressing love, kindness, and concern through expressions and tone. It makes the turn in their evening that much more effective as we’re immediately put on edge by the tension of escalating stakes after Dom’s misguided but well-intentioned choices land the pair in real trouble with the threat of violence coming both from without and within.

That threat comes in two forms, and both are something of a mixed bag. Swallowed nails the body horror aspect initially with gurgling stomach noises, brief glimpses of something moving in those balloons, and the knowledge that what went in must eventually come out. (The film’s grasp on how long digestion typically takes feels more than a bit shaky, but it’s a forgivable mistake.) Colon’s performance creates an unnerving and cringe-inducing air about things as his inner rumblings become more evident, but they don’t build in the ways body horror outcomes typically do. Sound design during the extraction isn’t for the audibly squeamish, but visuals are kept to a bare minimum on that particular horror front leaving the body horror promise feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

The other threat facing the two friends are the very human elements of greed, hate, and wanton cruelty. Alice forces the title act, but the hateful prick they cross paths with at a rest stop triggers Dom’s physical meltdown. The redneck might be forgettable, but Malone owns the hell out of her character’s intensity and attitude. She becomes their tour guide straight to hell, and while the two men can be faulted for going along with her so easily — the opportunities to take her down are numerous and all ignored — her fierce urgency goes a long way in explaining their willingness to comply.

It’s in its third act where Swallowed goes somewhat off the rails and feels as if its lost its way. Mark Patton enters the picture as Alice’s boss, but rather than play the character as a menacing figure he injects the film with a campy vibe that’s immediately at odds with the tension and suspense that came before. The film’s escalating intensity takes a real hit, and it never recovers. The narrative stumbles too with a shift away from the initial horrors and towards this newcomer’s sexual predator vibe as he objectifies Ben alongside the camera.

As an encapsulation of the struggles faced by young gay men, Swallowed is an engaging mashup of themes and ideas, both intimate and extreme, brought to life with a sharp eye for humanity and beauty. As a genre effort, though, it feels somewhat half-baked as bold conceits are left unexplored (the “drug” causes erections, an “old queen” becomes the villain) and body horror is left behind two thirds of the way in. The film clumsily shifts gears to challenge its protagonist with a wholly different challenge, and it’s never as effective or interesting as the ones that came before.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.