It’s bad enough when best friends Benjamin and Dom are forced to smuggle drugs across the border on what should have been their last night together. But it gets even worse when they discover the packages they swallowed aren’t regular uppers: they’re filled with larvae, capable of delivering a paralysing, full-body high with just one bite. Anything more can be deadly. And when one of those packages rips open inside Dom’s intestines, it becomes a race against time to extract the creature hatching inside him.
This is the grizzly diegesis of Swallowed. And, on paper, it sounds like it might just be a body horror masterpiece. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see director Carter Smith underutilise a strong cast and an even stronger concept.
Firstly, Cooper Koch, Jena Malone and Mark Patton (the latter as our absurd and unhinged antagonist) play their parts fantastically. And it can’t be denied that Smith does a wonderful job crafting an atmosphere of despair and isolation. Yet, despite these superb performances and the plotline’s ticking time bomb tension, Swallowed somehow still lacks — much like Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World — any real sense of action or urgency. For long stretches it feels like we’re stuck in the same place, on the same note.
There’s also the notable absence of traditional body horror tropes. Swallowed is irrefutably visceral, explicit and uncomfortable, much like György Pálfi’s Taxidermia or Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff, but it fails to impregnate and dismantle the body with the same punch as the likes of Alien and Shivers.
But perhaps Swallowed never intended to insert itself into the accepted body horror canon. Instead, it does something Ridley Scott and David Cronenberg don’t in the aforementioned titles: it savagely explores the objectification and exploitation of the human form by humans themselves, abridging the body to a receptacle for transporting cargo (and in the case of the grubs inside Benjamin and Dom, at the perfect temperature, too). This objectification, despite its calculated perversity, is a more delicate expression of the body horror subgenre. One much closer to reality and, arguably, one more tragic and disturbing.
Even with these idiosyncrasies, Swallowed still suffers from a script that feels like it could have gone further. When the final credits start rolling, it’s difficult not to lament what might have been.
24 April 2023