'Swallow' Is the Upsetting, Gorgeous Horror Movie You Need to Watch
To describe how he approached his new consumption thriller Swallow, Carlo Mirabella-Davis reached for a food metaphor. "I really liked the idea of a sort of tiramisu of genres," he says. "We would have the psychological horror, the body horror, but would also have the dark comedy elements, which help the medicine go down." Mirabella-Davis, along with star and executive producer Haley Bennett, have made one of the most impressively squirm-inducing movies in recent years -- now in select theaters and available to rent on VOD -- in which the act of eating is rendered alternately disgusting and thrilling.
Bennett plays Hunter, the wife of a wealthy businessman who spends her days making sure their gorgeous Hudson Valley home is pristine and his dinner is ready when he gets home. In the early scenes, Hunter appears subservient and overly grateful for the chilly affection her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) and his parents offer. But her persona starts to shift upon learning that she's pregnant, and her cry for help manifests in a disturbing fashion: She begins to eat indigestible items.
It begins with a marble and then spirals into even more dangerous materials: a tack, a battery, a safety pin. Hunter treats each thing she swallows like a prize that will reemerge. She fishes it out from her excrement, washes off the blood and stool, and places it on a mirror. "In a way, the objects become secondary to the emotional experience that Hunter realizes she has with the objects," Bennett explains. "They all become kind of substitutes as if they were a drug."
For Mirabella-Davis, Hunter's tale is a riff on a personal one. His grandmother was, by his description, a homemaker in an unhappy marriage who developed "rituals of control," including obsessive handwashing. "[She] would go through four bars of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week," he says. His grandfather had her committed to a mental institution, where she was given electroshock therapy, insulin shock therapy, and a lobotomy. "I always thought there was something punitive about it, that she was being punished in a way for not living up to society's expectations of what a wife or a mother should be," Mirabella-Davis explains. "But as I was adapting the story, I realized handwashing is not very cinematic."
Eventually, he came across a picture of the contents of someone's stomach who suffered from pica, the eating disorder that Hunter has. "They were fanned out in this beautiful array, kind of like an archaeological dig," Mirabella-Davis says. "And I was fascinated and I wanted to know what drew the patient to them. It almost seemed like Holy Communion or something mystical."
When Haley as Hunter swallows an item and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi closes the camera in on her face, there's a sense of relief mixed in with her pain. "I think with each object there's a different experience," Mirabella-Davis says. "The marble has something prismatic about it. There's something magical. It recalls maybe a happier time in your childhood." The thumbtack, Bennett says, turns into a "dangerous liaison." The director reached out to Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in treating eating disorders, to read the script. She wrote an evaluation of Hunter as if she were a patient, and was ultimately a consultant on the project.
Even though Swallow is not a period piece -- Hunter plays a Candy Crush-esque cell phone game as she waits for Richie to return home -- Bennett and Mirabella-Davis wanted the initial design to evoke both '50s glamour and the "malignant" sexism that comes with that. "Idealizing women and women idealizing themselves in some ways to please, to get love, 'this is what I'm supposed to do, this is the role that I'm supposed to fulfill to be loved,'" Bennett says.
Bennett bristles when I use the term "Stepford wife" to describe Hunter's starting point. "That word is just the bane of my existence," she says. But she does start by evoking a regressive idea of the female spouse that she then deconstructs. She decided to use an affected voice, a "Marilyn husk" that slips away as the character evolves. The rigidity of Hunter's hair and wardrobe also shifts over the course of the film. "Hunter starts very colorful and as the film progresses she's literally drained of her life force and her color," Bennett says.
Arguably what's most surprising about Swallow is what it becomes. By the end, it's less of a horror movie than a pure drama. Rather than leaning more heavily on the grotesque elements of the narrative, it's driven by Hunter facing her own traumas. The manicured aesthetic dissolves as greys begin to dominate the palette. Bennett and Mirabella-Davis are cautious about talking about the ending -- they don't want it spoiled for audiences -- but Bennett says, "The ending is something that has rarely been approached." When Hunter swallows something in the final moments of the film, the meaning behind the act has changed. It's rebellion, but the kind that evokes a quiet calm instead of a cry of distress.
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