Swallowed Explores the Horrific Things We Do for Love
Few subgenres have the power to make us squirm like body horror. Whether the threat is coming from within or without, stories that locate the terror in the skin cause us to reevaluate the pieces of our lives we can’t live without. This is also the central premise of most love stories in which losing a loved one is often compared to losing a piece of our own bodies. Vastly different on the surface, these sub genres may have more in common than meets the eye. Writer and director Carter Smith’s Swallowed is a captivating blend of body horror and romance that manages to be both an intimate love story between friends drifting apart and a horrific battle for survival with an enemy lurking somewhere within.
Swallowed begins with two friends celebrating one final night on the town before a new phase of life tears them apart. Benjamin (Cooper Koch) will be leaving the small Maine town for Hollywood, set to star in a pornographic film he hopes will be his ticket to fame and fortune. His best friend Dom (Jose Colon) worries that he’ll get taken advantage of and has arranged a drug run to earn some last minute cash as a going away present. When they arrive at the meeting place, Dom is horrified to learn that he will have to swallow the mysterious substances he’s being paid to smuggle across the border. Unable to get out of the deal, Benjamin ends up downing one of the pods as well and the two friends head to the drop off hoping to rid their bodies of the sensitive substances as soon as possible. Unfortunately an ill-timed altercation causes one of the pods to rupture in Dom’s stomach, leaving him nearly paralyzed and dying. Stranded and in need of help, the two friends must turn to cruel drug dealer Alice (Jena Malone) for help while they try to pass the hazardous bugs and deliver them to Alice’s mysterious boss before the poison they’ve swallowed takes over.
With minimal effects and a small cast, the success of Swallowed rests heavily on its performances. Koch is mesmerizing in a fearless turn as a young man in way over his head. The talented actor excels in his first leading role in a feature film, carrying the emotional arc of the story and keeping the action grounded through the more outlandish beats. Like his fictional counterpart, Koch has the makings of a star on the rise. Jena Malone once again delivers a strong performance as the drug dealer Alice, in an unglamorous role that requires her to deftly ride the line between deadly threat and Benjamin’s only refuge.
Horror legend Mark Patton helms the third act as Alice’s mysterious boss. After years away, it’s wonderful to see him gracing the screen again. Though he’s playing a vicious criminal, elements of his performance feel autobiographical, especially when recalling his too short time in Hollywood. A moment when he mentions being taken advantage of when warning Benjamin about the perils of show business feels especially poignant considering Patton’s real life struggles in the cruel and close-minded industry. But the star of the show is Jose Colon. In a heart wrenching debut performance, he captures our hearts as Benjamin’s fearless protector and the first love of his life.
Best known for directing the body horror sci-fi mash-up The Ruins (also starring Malone), Smith once again explores the effects of a parasitic infection and the ways our physical presence connects us with those we love. His other notable genre film is the 2014 indie Jaime Marks is Dead which explores the connection between romantic love and friendship. Smith weaves these two themes together seamlessly in a story that feels equally horrifying and tender. Coming from the world of fashion photography, Smith frames his shots well, highlighting the glamor within his cast without ever losing track of the messy truth of the story. He films the more salacious scenes with a sensitivity and restraint that speaks to experience within a frequently misrepresented community. Swallowed feels like a story that comes straight from Smith’s heart, making it impossible not to feel for each one of his four stars.
Though Swallowed often feels like a deeply touching character study, it is a horrifying story of physical pain. Benjamin and Dom have unknowingly swallowed mysterious larvae hours away from hatching. We don’t know what the poisonous beings will do to their bodies should the fragile pods rupture and our minds jump to horrific conclusions. What follows is a unique take on established body horror tropes that takes a story about a (possibly) alien species and keeps it firmly grounded in reality. We may speculate about the creatures, but we never lose track of the film’s primary goal which is simply ridding our heroes’ bodies of the deadly pods. Smith gives us relatively few answers, but we’re more concerned with protecting Dom and making Alice pay for putting him in danger.
Though it traffics in body horror, Swallowed is first and foremost a love story. While Benjamin and Dom aren’t a couple, they share a deep connection that may just be more intimate than any romantic relationship. They truly will do anything for each other and watching Dom go to horrific lengths just to improve the life of his friend and soulmate is incredibly endearing. How many of us have someone we love so much that we would be willing to tear our bodies apart from the inside just to give them a chance at a better life? With a tender script from director Carter Smith, the film is an emotional gut-punch that rips at our hearts just like the invading bugs rip at Dom’s body. Swallowed is a beautiful exploration of love and horror not soon to be forgotten.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.