Popcorn Frights Review: Carter Smith’s ‘Swallowed’ Crosses The Border With A Belly Full Of Bugs
Cringe-inducing body horror delivered via a tightly-paced, timely thriller about a queer couple smuggling drugs across an international border surely isn’t something anyone had on their horror movie bingo cards, though it’s exactly what Carter Smith’s Swallowed shoots for and achieves with flying colors. The film opens with a hypnotic credits sequence intercut with the leads dancing in a club, all set to Rina Mushonga’s rhythmic pop hit “Narcisc0”, cleverly kicking things off on a uniquely positive note for a horror film. Viewers are introduced to aspiring porn star Ben (Cooper Koch of They/Them putting in an impressively nuanced performance) and his “friend” Dom (Jose Colon making the absolute most of this debut role) very organically through their dialogue as they share an evening out in Mexico. Dom is secretly planning on sending Ben to Los Angeles with some extra cash to help kick-start his adult film career, using the excuse of needing to stop by his cousin’s house so he can “check on her” to keep Ben in the dark about the fact that they’ll actually be smuggling drugs to the United States.
Upon their arrival a stranger who introduces herself as Alice (Jena Malone of The Neon Demon and The Hunger Games totally embodying her character) informs them that she’ll be overseeing this run since Dom’s cousin is heavily intoxicated. It only takes a minute or two before the situation escalates into Alice holding the pair of men at gunpoint and forcing them to swallow pouches containing an unknown substance, which is only the beginning of the downward spiral this evening is going to take. Shortly thereafter the duo is assaulted over their sexuality by a bigoted redneck in a rest stop bathroom, where Dom takes a hard punch to the gut that causes one of the illicit vessels to rupture inside his body. It’s soon revealed there’s a species of exotic bug in the pouches that provide a euphoric high to humans when bitten but bring along some extreme negative side effects, complicating their already terrible situation even further. The back half of the film sees the aforementioned events culminating into a highly awkward, overtly sexual final act that doesn’t pull any punches and features a flamboyant, Joe Exotic-esque redneck drug lord portrayed with graceful insanity by Mark Patton of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 fame.
This final thirty minutes or so of the film’s brisk ninety-two minute runtime feels painfully drawn out in comparison to the rapid-fire pacing of the first two acts, but it’s hard to fault it for this as that’s sort of the point. Viewers are positioned alongside a character who’s enduring a horrific encounter so that the experience feels shared, which might cause mileage to vary for those that can’t fully wrap their heart around this notion. There’s relentless tension spanning the narrative that’s dialed up immensely by a tight 4:3 aspect ratio working in parallel with excellently framed handheld camerawork, grounding the events of the film in a way that really heightens engagement. Immersion is also elevated by highly naturalistic and intimate dialogue, likely a result of this being Carter Smith’s first fully original feature since he serves as the writer here also. Everything is beautifully and naturally lit with a slew of clever shots blending perfectly into the minimalist editing style, topped off by gnarly practical effects reminiscent of Smith’s feature directorial debut The Ruins in the way they make viewers squirm albeit more subtle in terms of usage. Overall, this is a film with such a clear vision and high level of authenticity that it’s hard to not feel immediately drawn into the world crafted on screen. You can take the trip yourself when Swallowed crosses the border with a stomach full of bugs later this year, but in the meantime check out the trailer below for a bite-sized preview.