’00s teenagers and fans of particularly gnarly horror will remember The Ruins fondly; a rare, hyper-gory post-Saw squirm-a-thon that’s only won more fans in the years since its first bow. Director and photographer Carter Smith’s latest however – only his second feature since that cult debut in 2006 – is a completely different animal entirely. A thinner, cheaper, queerer and potentially more interesting thriller that shifts both gears, and genres, throughout.

Up front, Swallowed is a thin-on-the-ground drug story; starry-eyed Benjamin (Cooper Koch) is on the verge of a big move to LA to chase fame as a porn star. But his final night with boyfriend Dom (Jose Colon) goes off the rails, when a get rich quick scheme leaves them both choking down baggies full of mysterious powder to smuggle across the US-Canadian border – a move that goes from bad to body horror when a bag splits and an already tense night becomes a waking nightmare.

It’s a gradual escalation from crime thriller to full on horror that Smith (also on scripting duties) always grounds tightly in character. A well cast Jena Malone (clearly still a fan of Smith’s post-Ruins) levels things up nicely too, as a ratty drug runner with a moral compass, and despite its many twists and one particularly extreme sequence involving a hideous amount of vaseline (maybe not what you’d expect), Swallowed never ever feels like it’s jumping the shark.

SwallowedIf anything, quite the opposite, particularly when it turns down the volume for an uncomfortable final act with the much alluded-to big bad – Mark Patton’s seedy Joe Exotic-type. Smith brings the film’s queer identity front and centre, and makes a true avenging angel out of Koch’s wide-eyed Benjamin, but it does land a little off-piste; a tight and tense finale, but one belonging to an entirely different film.

Perhaps it’s due to what looks to be a tiny budget, but some potentially brave practical effects get lost in the gear change too, and a ticking time bomb of a plot device – very cleverly placed early on – fizzles out without any fanfare altogether. Which is a shame considering just how far the film pushes the rest of its resources; in particular Alexander W. Lewis’s gorgeously guerrilla cinematography, intimate and handheld but finding some beautiful frames throughout.

Swallowed is an unusual thriller; often inspired and never one to tone down its nudity or intensity, but just missing out on the sort of conviction that would make it truly great. Patton’s spittingly horrible drug boss is just the wrong side of pathetic; Malone’s morally-dubious fixer is perfectly pitched, but doesn’t quite get the ending she deserves, and the third act abandons any hope of the explosive genre fare it’s been building to, swapping it out for what is ultimately a fairly transparent survival story.

Carter Smith’s flare for tight, but still stylish, storytelling is the major pull here, and Koch’s performance is a standout; it’s a devilishly well-made thriller, sumptuous in its seediness, but one which leaves you begging for its cast and crew to take things further still.

 

Swallowed screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2022.