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‘Swallowed’ (2022) Fantasia Fest Review

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Swallowed is a smart, low-fi queer body horror that is as much a love story as it is a nightmare.

The story focuses on the friendship between Benjamin and Dom (newcomers Cooper Koch and Jose Colon) as they celebrate their last night together before Benjamin moves to LA. On their way home, Dom takes a detour to make a little extra cash as a going-away present, but they soon learn they’ll need to carry a mysterious package across the Canadian border. When Alice (Jenna Malone) forces the men to swallow the merchandise, their last night together spirals into a hellscape of drugs, bugs, and violence.

Writer-director Carter Smith first conceived of this project back in 2006 with his short film Bug Crush. Though he always wanted his first feature to be something like Swallowed, he ended up directing The Ruins (2008), a massive studio horror movie with Jenna Malone. Since then, he’s been working his way back to projects with more manageable logistics and called in all sorts of favors to get this latest film off the ground.

Shot in only 15 days, the strength of this movie lies in how Director of Photography, Alexander Lewis frames the excellent performances by both Koch and Colon. These characters are confident in their queerness and in their love for each other, and the camera makes sure to stay on their faces no matter how rough things get (and they get really, really rough). During a Q&A after the premiere, Smith told us he wanted 70% of the movie to be close-ups, which is why he opted for a 4:3 aspect ratio. The result is a screen filled with Benjamin and Dom’s faces, making every moment of lust, fear, and pain feel intimate and intense.

Across from the two protagonists are Jenna Malone and Mark Patton, who both deliver terrifying villainous performances. Malone does a great job of mixing menace and terror as a high-strung middle-woman with an intimidating neon-green manicure. Though she makes despicable decisions in this movie, we also get a sense of the fear that pushes her to such extremes. About halfway through the film, we learn the true source of her fear, none other than queer horror icon Mark Patton.

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Patton, if you don’t already know, starred in 1985’s Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a movie that has since found a lot of love among queer horror fans. The documentary Scream, Queen! showcases the movie’s complicated legacy, tracing Patton’s acting career as a proud gay man whom Hollywood obligated to live in the closet. Smith told us that as a queer kid living in small-town Maine, Freddy’s Revenge was the first time he saw someone like himself in a horror movie (an experience many others share). He wrote this role in Swallowed specifically for Patton, eventually offering him the job via an Instagram DM.

Patton makes a meal out of every scene he’s in, and ramps up the tension in what is already a very stressful scenario. Though he is undeniably the Bad Guy, he still offers a few (very brief) moments in which we get a glimpse of his humanity. Patton’s dynamic with Koch is a masterclass in horror writing and acting. Their scenes showcase how strength, vulnerability, power, and violence interact with each other in all sorts of complicated ways.

Watching this movie at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival was an excellent experience. This kind of crowd relishes anything bizarre, shocking, and gory, and this film did not disappoint us. Swallowed is visceral, intimate, and grimy; it is both extremely unsettling and surprisingly sweet. You will squirm in your seat, you will groan, and you may even cry.

Be careful what you swallow.

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Eli is based in Montreal and writes about indie and horror movies under the name Bad Critic. She is a Pisces.

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Art and Pain: A Look into the World of ‘Allegoria’ (2022)

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No, an artist doesn’t have to suffer, but we remember those who did and do struggle so much more than those who don’t. Take, for example, Vincent van Gogh, whose final words were “The sadness will last forever.” These words lead us into the anthology film Allegoria (2022), written, produced, and directed by Spider One, in which several artists fight against their fatal flaws and the forces of evil.

The movie shows segments of disparate artists’ lives. There are actors, musicians, a painter, a writer, and a sculptor. On the surface, their stories are connected only by the theme of pursuing their craft. As the film progresses, we see interlacing threads that weave them together, such as a painting, a conversation, a desire. The main connection is the presence of evil, of course, making this a horror film. The gore and unease amplify the horror, and while they are abundant, Allegoria doesn’t hinge on the obvious scares. Instead, it focuses on the ramifications of internal fear.

There are many common fears experienced by artists of all sorts, including imposter syndrome, not being able to support oneself, selling out, and not being understood. As any creator knows, these experiences can halt our work, can stifle our creativity, and can make us want to quit. But for most determined artists, the desire to create is greater than the fear of failure. The artists in Allegoria face these fears quite literally, as they manifest in physical form. How can, say, insecurity be represented physically? By an aggressively instigating, sufficiently creepy person in hellish makeup and costume, of course.

Spider One has successfully completed his first feature film (and directed nine shorts), but most of the creatives in Allegoria are not so lucky as to have a finished product. The writer/producer/director is not so confident in his work that he is never plagued by fear, according to an interview with Portalville Podcast, and we can therefore assume that some level of projection is present in Allegoria. Having a personal connection to one’s art shows in obvious ways: a passion project is often more enjoyable than one produced simply for a paycheck. The cast and crew have certainly experienced the anxieties they present on the screen, giving the film a feeling of authenticity.

Suffering is an essential part of the human experience, but is it essential to the artist’s experience? To an extent, yes, because work that resonates comes from lived experience, but it is not mandatory. Requiring anyone to suffer is cruel, and moreover, requiring suffering for a better experience in consuming art is selfish. So why are we so drawn to evocative art? It’s a complex question that doesn’t have a straight answer, especially considering everyone’s different experiences and preferences. Most can agree, however, that powerful art makes us feel. To paraphrase the sculptor Ivy in one scene, good art takes an object, turns it into a feeling, and turns that feeling into a visceral reaction. Allegoria’s success, much like all horror movies, depends on eliciting a visceral reaction. It deftly uses gore, dread, and dialogue to show that something is not right in these artists’ lives.

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My favorite segment of the film centers on the painter Marcus. He’s an unlikeable protagonist, openly disparaging other art forms such as acting, and he is also pretentious, looking down on his agent for not knowing about Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg’s painting “The Harrowing of Hell.” As he fights against the clock to finish a piece, Marcus deals with the annoyances of forced social interaction. A creator myself, I understand his short temper with interruptions, and I can’t say that I’ve never wanted to get totally immersed in my work and shut out the world. This segment of the film also includes my favorite shot, which I won’t spoil for you.

Allegoria is a great representation of the misfortune of creativity. Those who are cursed with it often suffer for their art. That suffering is not necessary, but I’d say it is felt by the majority of artists. Through physical manifestations of their anxieties, the depicted creators face evil forces. But is it truly evil, or is it simply an allegory?

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REVIEW: ‘They/Them’ is a Problematic Yes/No

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This movie needs a ton of trigger warnings: homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment, animal cruelty, and aversion therapy.

When I first heard about They/Them I was incredibly nervous for it to come out. While it’s not new to have nonbinary characters in horror films, we rarely get such explicit representation. I expected this film to either be a radical example of queer representation and catharsis or completely off the mark. I was especially wary because of the conversion camp setting. However, I felt like it was a mixed bag.

Let me start by saying that there are some genuinely upsetting moments, especially for those of us who can relate to the campers. There are many scenes where the characters share their motivations for being at the conversion camp, and while this helps us understand their motivations and watch their growth throughout the film, it can hit a little too close to home. There are also instances when transgender characters are outed and then misgendered. The movie obviously pulls heavily from Friday the 13th but lacks the pacing that made other slasher movies suspenseful. Furthermore, I would have liked to have felt more anxiety for the campers, to really emphasize how fucked up the conversion camp was. However, the actual violence we see against the campers is pretty upsetting. I would have rather the movie focus on the camp’s backward conception of gender roles rather than seeing outright violence against queer characters.

One thing I think They/Them got right was its characters. The campers are all likable and have their own plotlines, despite the movie having a bit of an ensemble cast. At some points, the characters do feel like caricatures of LGBTQ+ stereotypes, but this is done more for inside jokes to make those of us in the community laugh, rather than making a joke at our expense. Jordan, the main character, is very capable and confident. They are the nonbinary representation I was hoping for, even if they sometimes fall into the Gary/Mary Sue category.

Overall, I’m not sure if I can recommend this movie. Its final message is interesting, and preaches finding strength through community over violence. But for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, this movie might be difficult to watch. It’s nice to see representation, but the possibility of being triggered is very real in this movie. Although They/Them was quite funny at moments, it’s not very scary. I’d say this movie is enjoyable, but not worth the risk if you are sensitive to any of the triggers listed at the beginning.

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They/Them is now streaming on Peacock.

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