Horror being used as a social allegory is a tale as old as time, even if less informed audiences might try to convince you that it is an entirely new phenomenon. From the earliest days of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Invasion of the Body Snatchers up to Dawn of the Dead, Candyman, and of course, perhaps the most obvious “social horror” film, Get Out, the difference today is that newer horror films steeped in social commentary are being made by filmmakers who are actually a part of the society they’re commenting on. Had Get Out been made in any other time before 2017, there’s a good chance that it would’ve been helmed behind the camera by a white man, losing the intimate sense of understanding that comes from having an artist tell a story that is his own. The difference today is that films looking to make a social statement don’t care about the comfort of the masses while putting out a bold and unique statement.
2020 has already shown that in full force with a number of films out this year making excellent statements on the nature of abuse, primarily of that towards women, and the horrifying ways it manifests itself. The first being Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge, a deeply grounded, deliciously bleak tale of religious repression and the intense effects that gaslighting takes on the human psyche. It’s a beautifully restrained tale of isolation and violence led by a powerhouse performance from Riley Keough. The next is Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a less grounded, but no less enthralling, thriller about the horrors of domestic abuse and how it follows you long after it ends, with a powerhouse performance from Elisabeth Moss. The last, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow, takes a much different approach than the former two films by introducing a far more disturbing and wince-inducing body horror element to the entire endeavor as it follows a woman coming to the realization of the severity of her domestic abuse, led by a powerhouse performance from Haley Bennett.
Notice a pattern?
Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) is a housewife newly married to wealthy business heir Richie (Austin Stowell), and has just discovered she is pregnant. Coming from a low-income family with a history of mental illness, Hunter often feels guilty about coming into a family of such wealth. When she begins to feel isolated from her husband and her in-laws, her anxieties and resulting depression lead her to physically manifest her confusing pain in the only way she knows how: swallowing things. At first, starting with inedible, but generally harmless objects like marbles, her collection of swallowed items grows to include bigger, sharper, more dangerous items. When Hunter’s habit makes itself known to her family, she begins to realize that her home life, wanting to keep the status quo, might hold more horror than any body trauma ever could.
To put it bluntly, Bennett is a borderline revelation in this film, re-reminding the audience that after her brief, but powerful, breakthrough in films like The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven, she’s still a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood among the other greats of her generation. Her performance grounds the film into something that feels more like a really dark prestige drama than something that could feasibly play at a horror film festival. It’s quiet and unnerving, but is also incredibly sympathetic in a way that doesn’t minimize her experiences as a victim of abuse. It’s a strange pattern of behavior, sure, but it’s not a pattern that is looked down upon as “disturbed” or “psychotic,” but as someone in a deep, quiet pain that only a certain kind of physical sensation can calm.
While this isn’t a gore-fest by any means, Swallow is one of the more viscerally unnerving films I’ve had the “pleasure” of seeing recently. It’s that type of “It could happen to you” horror that’s pulled towards the veil of reality so intensely that you can’t help but see yourself in Hunter in some way ,especially following the mundane numbness that comes with the worse parts of depression. Those who have suffered from it feel the same anxiety of doing something you know is bad for you to sate your feelings, whether it be swallowing, cutting, drug abuse, sex addiction, etc. It’s the mixture of physical body horror and the intense emotional noise that create such an unnervingly brutal film, despite its lack of any violence beyond that of mild bloody images and surgical images.
That’s what makes Swallow so compelling, how it creates so much tension out of so little actually seen on screen. It’s how director Carlo Mirabella-Davis utilizes every sense in building the sensory experience that becomes Swallow. From its gut-wrenching sound design to its haunting score from Nathan Halpern to how the film uses long, wide shots to compose the distant, isolated world of Hunter’s life. He builds a film out of every sense that could be used to keep the audience on their toes and off their lunch for a long time after the credits roll.
It’s that mixture of stomach-churning content mixed with the film’s incredibly heavy themes of abuse, rape, gaslighting, and social repression that turns Swallow into something that is excellent filmmaking, as well as something audiences may absolutely never want to watch ever again. The worst part is, it all feels like a loss, because watching it only once means we have to miss out on seeing the impressive work of Mirabella-Davis’s incredible feature debut, as well as the devastating performance from Bennett as the unnerving, but never misrepresented Hunter. It’s a genre-bending indie, the likes of which I’ve never seen, and, even in the oversaturation of the horror market of today, I can’t imagine seeing anything like it in the near future.
Screened during the 2020 Final Girls Berlin Film Festival.
In select theaters and on VOD beginning March 6th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.