Directed & Written
by Carter Smith
Starring Cooper Koch, Mark Patton, Jena Malone, & Jose Colon.
Horror / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
Turn back or be forever spoiled. Let this be your one & only warning.
When I first saw Bugcrush—a 2006 short film by director Carter Smith—I was still a closeted queer, even then in my early twenties, but it spoke to me so deeply because it was the first time I saw something defined as queer horror that didn’t play prim and proper for hetero viewers. Bugcrush is a genuinely subversive piece of cinema that uses powerful imagery and themes to deliver an equally powerful message. Swallowed takes Smith’s fascination with bugs as metaphor, particularly relating to queer issues, and amps it up further to tackle other pressing social issues affecting people of all genders and sexual orientations.
Swallowed is the story of Ben (Cooper Koch), a young gay man taking off to Los Angeles so he can make it in porn. He and his friend Dom (Jose Colon) are spending their last night together in town at the bar when Dom takes a detour to make some money he wants Ben to use for the approaching big move. What starts as a sketchy drug deal spins out of control after more is revealed about the drugs, turning an evening of drug muling into a horrific, disgusting quest to survive.
Smith’s Swallowed has a Cronenberg-like feel in the way it portrays the drug trade as a body horror experience after it’s revealed the drugs Dom and Ben are muling—for Alice (Jena Malone) and her boss Rich (Mark Patton)—come from strange bugs inside the condoms they’ve already ingested. There are numerous gross-out moments that embody the grotesque nature of human labour and how we sell our bodies to make money, and that’s where the powers lies in this film, released in a neo-Victorian Age today when everybody’s concerned about people doing OnlyFans while we’re all out selling our bodies for capitalism in any number of different yet analogous ways. Smith’s film is a vicious and relentless horror satire.
The obvious parallel in the film is between muling drugs and the act of fisting, often associated with gay pornography even though people of all genders/orientations engage in fisting. The prominent point here comes from Ben being on his way to L.A. to be part of the porn industry. The bug drug muling, involving their anal removal, becomes about the dichotomy between consent and assault, compounded by the fact Dom and Ben have always had a little thing for one another secretly and they’ve never hooked up. We first watch Alice direct Ben to stick a fist inside his friend Dom to retrieve the anal packages, then it gets far more exploitative when bug drug kingpin Rich takes over, sexualising the act as opposed to Alice who, in spite of holding them at gunpoint, was only treating the act as an unfortunate byproduct of a business transaction. There’s also something interesting in Swallowed about the many ways people sell their bodies to capitalism, particularly in regards to freedom of choice for our bodies in the workplace versus being forced to exploit our bodies as vehicles of labour. The film rightly posits that doing porn is no better or no worse than any other job, so long as it involves choice and consent.
A brief yet revealing scene happens when Dom and Ben first come to the rest stop and Dom goes inside to try passing the bug drug-filled condoms inside him. While inside, they’re accosted by a homophobe who calls them “faggots” and punches Dom in the stomach, precipitating so much of the bodily horror that follows. The larger significance of this scene is afterwards when Ben tells Dom: “Guys like that don‘t live in L.A.” Dom replies: “Guys like that live everywhere.” There’s an innocence about Ben in how he naively believes homophobia to be some kind of small-town disease, whereas Dom is well aware of the harsh reality. Similarly, Dom seems aware of the possibility for exploitation in the porn industry while Ben has rose-coloured glasses on about his move to L.A. to pursue pornstardom.
Rich’s character, in contrast with Ben, represents the reality that even people within the same communities can and will exploit each other because of capitalism, both of them being gay men. Mostly, with all the obvious parallels between the drug trade and the porn industry throughout Swallowed, Rich’s exploitation of Ben is a parallel to the exploitation of young men—and people of all genders—by men who hold the power in the adult entertainment industry. During one scene, Rich eerily calls Dom and Ben “sassy little things” as they’re on the floor in increasingly vulnerable positions while Alice pleads with him: “They‘re just kids.” An awful moment echoing the exploitative practices of male-run porn productions. There’s an unsettling scene later when Rich explains the bug drug’s effects: “You can feel everything, but you can‘t move.” The bug drug has the potential to be used as a date rape drug; Rich comes across as no stranger to that potential. This is creepy on its own, but there’s another parallel not long afterwards to the abuses of the entertainment industry as a whole, not just in porn. One of the following scenes features Rich sitting on a couch watching, and more importantly forcing, Ben to strip down for a bath, echoing a disgusting casting couch moment and the abuses of men like Harvey Weinstein.
In the end, Ben reverses the power dynamics nearly used against him by using one of the bugs on Rich. He takes away the bodily autonomy of a powerful man who has routinely taken away the bodily autonomy of others. There’s a fantastic shot of Ben tossing the immobilised Rich into an outhouse hole like human shit, and we also see Ben standing above Rich in his underwear, also wearing Rich’s cowboy jacket, with his prominent, powerful bulge visible in-frame in his tighty whiteys. Now that is art.
Swallowed is a satirical and uncomfortable film about the things that get inside us, and how difficult it can be to get them out, whether it’s the exploitation of capitalism, drugs, or a naive understanding of the big wide world outside our own individual bubbles. The story’s most relevant in its conversation about contemporary capitalism and the understanding of what it means to ‘sell our bodies.’
Ben goes on to a happy, successful porn career in L.A., which we see during the ending/mid-credits scene featuring him on the red carpet of an adult film industry event. The significance of this scene finishing off the film is that Ben’s now using his agency the way he determines, controlling how he sells his body and not how somebody else determines it ought to be sold; we all sell our bodies in some way, shape, or form, it’s all about how much autonomy we’re able to retain. Exploitation occurs in every business, so know your body’s worth.