In Wes Craven’s meta-slasher classic Scream the video-store nerd Randy lays out a list of horror movie rules that everybody should know lest they find themselves living in something resembling a horror film. I believe, for example, that the words “tits” and “legits” are rhymed at one point. But Randy, bless his patchy lil’ goatee hairs, forgot the most important rule of all horror movies when he laid out said horror movie rules—you never, and I mean not ever, go to a second location with Jena Malone. Think of that poor adorable dork-king Donnie Darko, his selfhood squeezed through a wormhole of Jena Malone’s making, and weep. And that was just the beginning! How many lives would have been spared if we’d all been given this simple small little bit of behavioral guidance sooner? Literally hundreds, if not thousands—this blood’s on you, Randy.
The latest fright flick to put this Malone theory of mine to the test, and to come down with a mean case of the positives in so doing, is Carter Smith’s squirm-inducing new queer creep-a-thon Swallowed, which just screened at Fantasia. Swallowed has its characters not only going to a second location to meet Jena Malone, but then to a third and finally a fourth one as well! And yes by that point we’re firmly in the “abandon all hope ye who enter here” territory—no destruction has ever felt so firmly assured since Brad Pitt thought hiding in a closet in a Coens Brothers movie was an excellent idea.
In Swallowed, Jena Malone is playing a character named “Alice,” which seems to me an indication that the filmmakers were plenty aware of the mortifying rabbit holes this actress tends to doom-suck everybody near her down into. Indeed the last time director Smith worked with Malone the actress gave one of my favorite performances of hers with The Ruins, the 2017 nightmare-travelogue movie that saw a bunch of Americans abroad stumbling stupidly into a cursed pile of vines. There Malone played brittle and high-strung, which felt like a big departure for the always-assured-seeming actress—here her “Alice” is more in her wheelhouse. Meaning that she’s pointed a gun in several people’s faces before she’s even passed the “five minutes of screen-time” mark. Ahhh, there’s the Jena we know and fear!
Alice, you see, is a mid-level drug-dealer who’s recruited our main characters of Benjamin (Cooper Koch, who’s making quite the scream-queen career with himself as he also co-stars in Peacock’s They/Them out this week) and Dom (Jose Colon) to deep-throat and drug-mule a few condom-balls full of mysterious narcotics across the border. (That’s where the film’s gay-pun-happy title comes through.) This very bad idea starts off as Dom’s very bad idea, although it has altruistic notions—he just wants to make some quick cash to help out his friend Benjamin, who’s heading to Los Angeles the next day to live out his dream of becoming a gay porn star. Benjamin is openly and proudly gay, but clearly also a little dim, as he has no clue of what’s obvious to Alice and to any of us watching these two—that Dom is head over heels for his friend, and twice as heartbroken that Benjamin is leaving before they can do anything about it.
Swallowed leaves it an open question, how much this final-night-together misadventure is meant to be a self-destructive cry-of-attention from Dom to Benji, but it hardly matters once Alice shows up with her neon green fingernails flashing around like warning signs that the boys keep dumbly missing. They’re so caught up in their own private drama they can’t see the forest for the fingernails, and everything’s so far passed shit’s creek by the time they do realize how screwed they are they might as well proclaim themselves the queer kings of shit mountain.
I’m not pulling all this “shit” talk out of my you-know-where. What goes in must inevitably come out, and those questionable little packets that Jena Malone’s force-fed the boys come back, with ick-inducing insistency, to haunt everybody—including you and your nightmares. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to see Smith’s 2006 queer-horror-classic short-film Bugcrush then you might have an inkling of where Smith’s about to run with things, but I have no desire to ruin this plot’s shocks if you haven’t. I think it’s safe and spoiler-free to just say that shit ain’t right! And Swallowed will have you squirming in your seat and then some. Smith, swiping a fundamental page from The Book of Cronenberg, knows mixing up sexuality with horror is a sure-fire fast-pass straight to internal-conflict-ville—this movie aims to confuse our input receptors, make our instincts turn on us. It’s horny and horrible in equal measure.
To top it all off Jena Malone’s not even the biggest bad that Swallowed has in store. As I said up top she’s strictly mid-level, she’s got herself a boss. And when the you-know-what starts hitting the you-know-where, the boss comes a’runnin. Played by A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge star Mark Patton, whose life after that queer camp classic was recently profiled in the ace documentary Scream, Queen, I ain’t kidding when I say that he gives what will surely be one of my favorite performances of 2022 here. Patton, digging into wells previously unknown, is playing the sort of sneering lost-soul small-town homosexual—or as he screams at one point, “the wrong queen”—that will immediately be familiar to any gay person anywhere. And the second he walks in the room every gay who’s lived five days outside of a major metropolitan area will see the train coming, straight for our face.
Perhaps the straights will recognize this type too, but Patton’s character is the sort of inside-baseball specificity that we gays dream of when we say that, “Hey, maybe gay actors and gay directors can tell gay stories some of the time.” This is basically me saying that I wouldn’t at all have been comfortable with a straight actor playing this role this way right now, as Patton smears all sorts of our secret filth across this horror of a human being. It’s riveting, terrifying, cruelly-funny, and pathetic stuff. There’s clearly a hint of “Joe Exotic” from Tiger King to it, but only plumbed for its sadism—Patton gives full-bodied life to the pinnacle of curdled queerness that we run from when we run from small-minded small-towns. The worst instincts we can see pushing up through our flesh when failure and our particular sort of loneliness takes its hold. And it’s electric—every flamboyant mannerism, every shrill shriek. This is a fearless fear-fueling horror movie performance for the ages.