It’s something special to come across a body horror that is simultaneously the most precious film you have ever seen. Carter Smith’s Swallowed is such a special, sweet, wrenching flick. Sold as a “chilling fable,” which it certainly is in a sense, this film also cradles within it one of the year’s most heart-breaking romances.
Cooper Koch plays Benjamin, a young man who, alongside his best friend Dom (Jose Colon), is traveling to Los Angeles to become a porn star. It’s pretty obvious that Benjamin is in love with Dom, and Dom very obviously loves Benjamin, but doesn’t say as much because he’s apparently straight. The two are celebrating Benjamin’s success and departure, the night before driving down to L.A. Dom is very protective of Benjamin, but not in a patronizing way because he respects him no end. In a spur-of-the-moment effort to help his friend make some cash so he is safe when he gets to California, Dom arranges a swift drug smuggling gig with his cousin, promising Benjamin that he won’t have to get his hands dirty. They meet Alice (Jena Malone), who tells Dom to swallow a few sachets of milky white and instructs the two to drive across the border. When Dom isn’t looking, Alice forces Benjamin to swallow one of the bags. Alice cautions the two to be careful, for they don’t want the bags bursting within them. At a rest stop, a bigoted redneck punches Dom in the stomach causing the bags within him to burst. Dom becomes increasingly sick, and as they make their way to their destination, it becomes very obvious that the two have been smuggling not drugs but some organic life form.
This film is full to the brim with stunning performances. Malone is terrifying as the hard-headed Alice, a character you want to beat the shit out of even as you see that she’s fraying at the edges under the pressure of whatever the fuck she’s going through — she plays at a toughness that seems so easy, but she also conveys that Alice is in some dire danger, too. Colon as Dom is full of life and love for Benjamin, even if he doesn’t say it, heartbreaking in his desire to keep Benjamin safe even as he himself becomes gravely sick.
And then there’s Cooper Koch. Koch is stunning physically and in his performance, into which is baked his stunningness. The film begins with Benjamin already having been given a leading role in a porn picture, with his living arrangements already paid for. Success is basically guaranteed for Benjamin, so long as he makes it to L.A., which Dom strives to make happen. Koch’s Benjamin owns his beauty, but is also jaded by it, and it’s so captivating how much he loves Dom because characters as beautiful as Benjamin are so seldom depicted as fully fleshed, so complex as Benjamin is. Koch is a wonderful new actor, and his skill is at its best in the second half of the film, which has Benjamin working mostly within his mind to calculate how he will survive. Benjamin puts on a show for the drug dealer (Mark Patton), Alice’s boss, as though he were already in L.A. acting for a larger audience, and Koch depicts a cunning cool and a dire desperation within Benjamin as he tries to charm his way to freedom, his eyes fluttering with panic as he maintains a steady smile, quivering at the edges. As Benjamin communicates a ‘no’ or a ‘yes’ with a single look to the drug dealer, it’s easy for us to see how good an actor he is, how he could have landed the big role he did in L.A., we see what Dom sees in him.
Benjamin is simultaneously jaded and naive, needing Dom to protect him, and full of so much tenderness and caring for Dom, who reciprocates his feelings. Koch and Colon have such beguiling chemistry, and the actors depict this love with such gusto through their movements about each other, the way the two look at each other, but so much more in their smiles. It’s Koch and Colon who create the beautiful love story within Swallowed, and it is because of the two characters’ tender and budding love for each other that this movie is a success: its horror lands because it has us fall in love with the love story before and while putting these two characters through visceral hell.
The body horror in this film is unwavering, unapologetically gross, but Smith smuggles another kind of horror here, aside from the insect life forms floating within Dom and Benjamin, a horror whose bedrock is human interactions, the dangers others pose. It’s the horror of the menace with which Alice, the drug dealer, the redneck collide with Dom and Benjamin, with their beautiful and compelling love, that really terrifies. You want to kill all of them for how much they hurt these two, and it is for this reason that Swallowed is a masterclass on how to create a viscerally terrifying body horror.