Out of the Celluloid Closet

Swallowed Takes a Deep-Throated Approach to Gay Horror

As deeply as queer theory is attached to the horror genre, it’s surprising that we don’t have that many explicitly queer horror movies. Not many good ones, at least. There are a handful, though, including but not limited to Stranger By the Lake, The Hunger, Otto, Haute Tension, The Rift, and the exceptional Knife + Heart. I’m speaking about films mostly—if not entirely—occupied by characters that are queer, told through a queer lens. These characters don’t require some kind of “queer qualifier,” and they aren’t standing up for their queerness. They’re experiencing the mundanity of life as we do: horror just happens to be a big part of it.

Enter Carter Smith’s Swallowed, a horror movie wrapped in a thriller’s veneer. As the film begins, Benjamin and his best friend, Dom, are at their local gay bar. As they’re dancing and having drinks, we learn that it’s Benjamin’s last night in their seemingly small town. He’s off to Los Angeles to pursue his big dreams, leaving his friend behind. There’s an innocent sexual tension between the two, carried perfectly by leads Cooper Koch and Jose Colon. As the night progresses toward its end, Dom proposes the two engage in one last adventure, one that will net a cash gift to Benjamin as a send-off into the next phase of his life as an adult film actor in the Valley. While Benjamin is reluctant to join him, Dom is insistent, and soon the two are driving to the middle of nowhere, unknowingly headed for the worst night of their lives. 

Benjamin and Dom meet with Alice (a menacing Jena Malone) and Benjamin soon finds out that they will be smuggling some mystery drug across the border. This is where the horror begins, since Alice insists that the drugs, wrapped in balloons, are to be swallowed. After their refusal, she pulls a gun, and the boys are forced to ingest the balloons with specific instructions after they are passed. While Benjamin and Dom have never hooked up, they are about to share an experience together via the most sacred frontier of gay male sex: the asshole. Though it’s not sexual, their shared adventure is implicitly intimate and definitively traumatic.

Alice gives them the delivery destination and sends them on their way. After they cross the border, Dom realizes that he may already have to pass the drugs, like, now. They stop at a rest stop where they encounter a homophobic redneck who assaults Dom, releasing the drugs into his system. He passes it: however, the balloon is now moving. Whatever is inside of it is alive. 

As Dom begins to feel the effects of the drug, Alice reappears, having had little faith in their success to begin with. She escorts them to the destination, a run-down cabin, where she gives them instructions on how to get the drugs out quickly. However, Dom is now incapacitated and unable to move. In a moment of panic, Alice calls “the boss.” 

While Benjamin and Dom have never hooked up, they are about to share an experience together via the most sacred frontier of gay male sex: the asshole.

In a stroke of casting genius, Mark Patton shows up as the Rich, the boss in question. For those unfamiliar with Mark Patton, let’s take a minute to catch you up. He is the original gay scream queen, Jesse, from the thinly queer-coded horror sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. (Patton went on to produce a great documentary about his experience with the film, and its backlash on his career, called Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.) What makes Patton’s casting so great here is that in this film, he can openly play queer. And boy, does he. He’s a mean, dirty-minded villain that ramps up the stakes the instant he steps onscreen.

When Benjamin is commanded to remove the remaining balloons from Dom in a way that will undoubtedly scar him—and possibly the audience—for life, Rich seems to get pleasure from all of the unpleasant things he’s made him do. When Alice says to Benjamin, in reference to the ailing Dom, “does he know you are in love with him?” it makes everything that follows that much worse. The forced and final act of visceral intimacy between Benjamin and Dom connects them in a gruesome way that can never be reversed. How can Benjamin, if he survives, move forward with anything, let alone a career in porn, or a normal life at all? 

Creating a non-sexual connection between two men through inadvertent physical sexual trauma is the clear definition of body horror, and furthermore, queer body horror. What makes the premise so smart is that it ties it all together through intimacy. They are friends, they care about each other, and they are attracted to one another, but the way in which these men finally connect is horrifying and utterly f*cked up. 

Without giving much more away, the film does pass through (if you will) several harrowing scenes of horror. Filled with full-frontal male nudity and dark narrative innuendos that speak to the gay male experience, Swallowed pushes audiences to places rarely seen on film. With stellar performances from the devoted cast, this shocking little indie will have a strong cult life through word of mouth – because one simply cannot refrain from talking, nor thinking, about it once it has been seen. It is provocative, unnerving, and well executed, and is an unforgettable entry into the queer horror film canon.♦

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