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How Swallowed Upends LGBTQ+ Representation In Horror

How 'Swallowed' Upends LGBTQ+ Representation In Horror

Mark Patton and Cooper Koch in Swallowed
Momentum Pictures

PRIDE sat down with director Carter Smith alongside stars Cooper Koch and Jose Colon to discuss the transgressive queer body horror film.

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Queerness has always found a home in the horror genre. Stories of outsiders, transgressors, and weirdos are a natural fit for people who often feel pushed to the sidelines by the mainstream. It was certainly a respite for director Carter Smith, who grew up in rural Maine and craved escape but found refuge in horror along the way. “So much of horror is about being an outsider,” Smith tells PRIDE. “Traditionally, our final girls are the ones that are the nerdy ones. They’re the ones that don’t fit in with the jocks and the popular kids. Their otherness helps them to survive in a way. Even if I’m not the final girl that I’m seeing on the screen, I think that it’s incredibly powerful to understand that, as an outsider, as an ‘other,’ that can be a strength rather than a weakness.”

With Swallowed, Carter takes that subtext and makes it fully the text of the film. Swallowed opens on the night before Benjamin, an out and proud gay man, is about to set off to make his stardom dreams a reality in Los Angeles. In his case, he’s been recruited into the world of adult enertainment and it’s a role he’s excited to take on. In a misguided attempt at chivalry, his “straight” friend Dom (who is clearly in love with Benjamin) wants to score some quick cash to fund his westward journey. However, this is a horror film, so things quickly take a turn for the terrifying — and the deliciously grotesque.

Jose Colon in Swallowed

Momentum Pictures

The movie is also unapologetically queer from top to bottom. To a person, every named character on screen is queer, and aspects of queer culture weave throughout the film. That being said, it’s not a “gay” film in the sense that the plot falls into the typical narratives associated with queerness. That was something that excited its lead, Cooper Koch, about his role. “I had a really hard time coming out, I really didn’t want to be gay. I was bullied when I was in middle school because I did theater and dance. I thought I couldn’t be an actor because I was gay, and that I wouldn’t get roles, that people wouldn’t take me seriously,” Koch tells PRIDE. “What’s so special about this film, is that it’s not necessarily about the queer experience. It’s not about being gay, it’s not about coming out. I love that because it sort of just normalizes the queer experience, and my hope with this film, and hopefully just like in the industry, is that we get to see more of these characters and these stories.”

Jose Colon, who stars as Dom, similarly appreciated the film's approach, although for him it was about representing his community. “I’m Spanish, and there’s nothing in the film that mentions a Latinx guy. That’s refreshing for me too. I’m just the guy. I’m just existing in his world,” he says.

Watch PRIDE’s full interview with Cooper Koch and Jose Colon below.

The film marks Colon’s first acting gig, a shocking revelation considering not only that his performance effortless but the extremes of what he’s asked to do on screen. He’s vulnerable and stripped down (literally) in ways that many would feel intimidated by. Thankfully, Colon felt totally at ease on set. “I was super comfortable with everything and that’s thanks to the team. That’s thanks to Cooper, that’s thanks to Carter, that’s thanks to Jenna (Malone). And I’m making a fucking movie. I’m so happy to be doing it.”

Momentum Pictures

Koch explains that Carter worked hard not only to make the set feel safe but to get to know his cast and let the natural chemistry develop between them. “Carter had us come to Maine a week before we started shooting. And it was just the two of us in a big cabin together,” Kock recalls. “So we went for drives and we watched movies and we made meals together. And we talked about stuff and we worked out...so we really just kind of developed a friendship over the course of that week.”

Cooper Koch and Jose Colon  in Swallowed

Momentum Pictures

This tactic would prove successful — and necessary — especially when it came to one particularly grueling scene that we won’t spoil and refer to only as “the extraction scene”. Shooting it, it turns out, was as difficult as it appeared on the screen. “It was not one day,” reveals Koch. “But three... that we were in that same setup. That was really challenging, just because of all the technical continuity things while also being aware of where we were emotionally.”

It was just one of the times that Koch had to stretch and show off his craft. Frankly, the role of Benjamin is one that actors dream of, thanks to its complicated and fleshed-out arc. When Koch first read the script, he admits it was a bit overwhelming. “I read it and in my left hand I was like, fuck yeah, this is awesome. Let’s go. This is an amazing script, with all the twists and turns, and an amazing character. I’m the hero,” he says. “And then in my right hand, I’m like, holy shit, could I really do this? This is terrifying.”

Jenna Malone in Swallowed

Momentum Pictures

Benjamin was a character that Carter wrote in part from his own experiences growing up in a small town, but also he saw the young out queer man as aspirational. “Growing up in a very rural place, I think that there was this immediate urge — like Benjamin in the film — to get out [and] explore other places where I can find people like me. [Rural America] can be a scary place,” he recalls. In particular, he points to a scene that takes place at a rest stop in the film, where the leads are harassed and threatened with sexual violence. This time though, Carter was able to rewrite the narrative and upend the power dynamic. “There was something about revisiting that location with a character like Benjamin, who is 100% comfortable and confident and secure and who he is. Yes, he’s getting out, he’s moving to L.A., but it’s not this angsty inner struggle story of him dealing with his sexuality. He knows who he is, he knows who he wants to be, and he knows what he wants in a way that maybe I didn’t when I was growing up in that space,” he explains.

Jose Colon and Cooper Koch  in Swallowed

Momentum Pictures

For Carter, Benjamin was the opportunity to write the kind of characters he craved seeing on screen himself growing up — so too were the villainous likes of Rich, played by out actor and genre legend Mark Patton, and Alice, portrayed by Malone, which offered more chances to represent a different kind of queerness on screen. “I liked the idea of having a character like Rich in Mark who’s a different sort of gay and even Jenna’s character, Alice, there’s not a lot about her sexuality, but the girl you see in the Jeep, that was her girlfriend, that’s, that’s how that was written,” he shares. “[The film is] exploring what these characters in this place are like, and how they might be alike or different from the people that we know, in our modern world of living in New York and other big glamorous cities.”

Patton’s character was written specifically for the actor, who Carter personally tracked down and talked into taking the role after seeing him in Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street about his experience starring in the second Nightmare on Elm Street film, and the fallout of his queer-coded character in the 1980s.

Watch PRIDE’s full interview with Carter Smith below.

“For [Mark] playing a part, like Rich he was pretty — I don’t wanna say he was scared of the role, but he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this.’ And I was like, you can do this,” recalls Smith. ”It took a bit of convincing, but I did get him to come on board. And I think that people are going to be excited to see him onscreen and all of his like, backwoods glory.”

Patton who is living with HIV had a recent health struggle, but is doing better these days, shares Carter, who says he speaks to the actor nearly every day. He also gushes over the experience of taking the film on the festival circuit and watching the fans respond to Patton’s performance. “Seeing the amount of support that he has within the horror community, people love him. That has been incredibly exciting to sort of see how much the genre community appreciates him and the role that he plays in the queer horror world,” says Carter.

Mark Patton in Swallowed

Momentum Pictures

While Swallowed has proven to be a deeply personal piece, Carter’s not done using the horror lens to tell stories. Next up for the director is the Blumhouse-produced thriller The Passenger, starring Kyle Gallner (Scream 5) and Johnny Berchtold (Gaslit), about Randolph (Berchtold) getting caught up with his coworker Benson (Gallner) after he snaps and goes on a violent killing spree.

But is it queer? The answer is sort of. “Any film that I do is going to be a little bit queer just because of me. It’s sort of a coming-of-age hostage road trip thriller with Kyle Galner and Johnny Berchtold. It’s certainly not as queer as Swallowed, I’ll put it that way. But I think that queer audiences are going to find — as we always do — a little bit of ourselves in the movies that we love.”

That's a truth that is easy to swallow.

Swallowed is available now on Digital and to rent on demand. Watch the trailer below.

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Rachel Shatto

EIC of PRIDE.com

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.