One of my all-time favorite festival experiences was watching the body-horror romance Are We Not Cats? on the Audubon Aquarium IMAX screen during the 2016 NOFF. Generally, Overlook Film Fest offers way more gruesome, upsetting gore imagery to New Orleans audiences than NOFF does, but there was something about seeing that particular film’s D.I.Y. surgery gore on a 50-foot screen that really made me squirm. I was thinking a lot about that absurdly ginormous, hideous spectacle while watching the queer body horror Swallowed at this year’s Overlook. Swallowed‘s tender, grotesque gore may have been scaled down to the more reasonably sized screens of Pyrtania at Canal Place, but its Cronenbergian discomforts recalled that exact Are We Not Cats? IMAX screening in a way that made me outright nostalgic. It was especially nice to squirm in unison with a freaked-out, in-person crowd, which is exactly what Overlook offers New Orleans horror nerds every summer it returns here – even if they don’t have access to the pomp & scale of an IMAX venue.
Considering how few people showed up to that one-of-a-kind screening of Are We Not Cats?, Swallowed‘s appeal for most gore-hungry audiences is obviously going to have nothing to do with my niche film-fest nostalgia. Instead, Swallowed stands out as a rare queer horror story that has doesn’t rely on coming-out anxiety or small-town gaybashing for its sources of terror. It’s even rarer as a movie where fisting (almost) saves the day. Swallowed is a small-scale story of a drug deal gone horrifically wrong. Two friends looking for easy money (on the eve of one moving to L.A. to pursue a porn career) take an ill-advised job smuggling narcotics across the Canadian border for cruel, armed strangers. As the title suggests, they’re forced to ingest the smuggled goods instead of hiding them in their truck, learning far too late that the package in question is no ordinary street drug. By the time they they’re informed they’ve swallowed Cronenbergian drug-bugs on the verge of “hatching” inside their crisply-abbed gym bodies, the movie makes an abrupt stop. The back half is less focused on thrilling plot twists than it is on prolonged surgical & scatological bug extraction. There are some gnarly practical gore gags that keep the tension high throughout, and the always-welcome Jena Malone & Mark Patton put in sharp supporting performances as the no-nonsense dealers who desperately want their bugs back. It’s all super fucked up & super gay, which is always a winning combo.
Have enough people seen Are We Not Cats? to meaningfully recommend Swallowed as its queer sister film? Unlikely. It’s the connection that’s most meaningful to me, though, as this is the exact kind of niche, low-budget genre film I can only watch alone on streaming unless festivals like Overlook bring it to the city. Its vision of authentic, lived-in gay culture is not exactly inviting to outsiders. It’s speaking directly to that demographic, zeroing in on gay-specific fears of truck stop cruising gone haywire, overdosing on off-brand boner pills and, most horrific of all, communal tubs of Vaseline. As grimy as that public-bathroom-hookup corner of gay culture can feel, there’s a real tenderness & camaraderie shared between its two central players (Cooper Koch as the soon-to-be porn star & Jose Colon as his life-long, lovelorn BFF). The only reason it doesn’t fully tip into the body horror romance territory of Are We Not Cats? is that our heroes in distress are afraid of souring their friendship. It would be outright sweet if it weren’t for all the psychedelic bug drugs eating them alive from the inside. I’d recommend anyone whose ears perk up at the phrase “queer body horror” to check Swallowed out as soon as it’s accessible. In the meantime, please pour one out for the city’s only legitimate IMAX theater, formerly located at the Aquarium. It’s been decommissioned & dismantled, never to screen 50-foot gore gags again.