Swallow: The lost art of body horror
In his first full-length motion picture, Carlo Mirabella-Davis masterfully blends two horror subgenres, giving birth to an unconventional psychological body horror piece that is worthy of a spot next to some of Cronenberg’s best films.
Released in 2019, Swallow tells the story of Hunter, a young woman with a seemingly perfect life, who gets pregnant and starts suffering from PICA, a real-life psychological condition that makes a person impulsively consume inedible objects such as nails, pins, marbles, and so on. On a first note, I must say this is an extremely original premise, one that allows for an exploration of both the mind and the body through horror. I’ve heard/read some comments on how this film is not actually horror but more of a psychological drama. Well, I beg to differ, so I’m going to point out why Swallow is, in fact, the perfect psychological body horror film that we’ve been in dire need of for quite some time.
Psychological body horror
Psychological horror has always been a popular subgenre. And it has had a special place in the so-called “Horror Renaissance” of the last decade. We have seen the rebirth of this subgenre in brilliant movies like The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), and, of course, both of Ari Aster’s masterpieces: Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019). Something that I admire of Aster’s cinema is how he explores the depths of human emotion and pain through horror. With Swallow, Mirabella-Davis does something of the sort by using the unsettling nature of a mental disorder as a metaphor for the loss of control of one’s body.
Our main character, Hunter, is trapped within a ‘perfect life’. She has married into a rich family and is now a housewife to the prototypical ‘perfect man’ –handsome, rich, successful. However, what her disorder quickly begins to unravel is that in reality, the pain caused by her disorder is actually a relief of the suffering she feels inside. Moreover, it’s a pain through which she feels like she can take back the control over herself.
Something that I think this film achieves wonderfully is the depiction of how toxic relationships truly work, which not always manifest in the form of physical violence, but as the constant need of fulfilling someone else’s desires, and the subsequent impossibility of being one’s true self. From the outside, anyone would want to live Hunter’s life. That is until we know that she’s just living it to make others happy. In Swallow, we never see Hunter’s husband being violent to her, but his actions and omissions increasingly show how her feelings are unimportant to him. He never cares to understand her condition or to show support, all he cares about is how this makes him feel and how it will affect the baby, proving that Hunter’s feelings are the least of his concerns and that he is the center of their marriage. This keeps building up with every interaction we see between him/his parents and Hunter, ultimately resulting in him expressing what he truly thinks of her, saying things like: “You’re not good at anything”, “this is the best it is ever going to get”, and “I’ll fucking hunt you down, you ungrateful cunt”.
This psychological aspect of the film, centered around the element of ‘control’ -or the lack of it-, is further developed by Hunter’s past, which is revealed to us through her therapy sessions. At first, when asked about her family, she says she has always been loved, that she had a normal childhood, and that there is nothing more to it. Later on, Hunter reveals to her psychiatrist that she was born as a product of rape, which comes to show that she doesn’t only has to deal with a toxic relationship but also with an untreated trauma. This ultimately plays an important role for the end of Hunter’s story, as it is only when she faces this trauma head on that she can overcome it and reclaim her own self.
The ending has been widely discussed and the opinions around it are divided. I for one belong to the group of people that believes it is the perfect closure to the story. I’ll try to not give away so many spoilers, so all I’ll say is that what we see in the ending is Hunter taking back the control over herself, reclaiming her body, not as a projection of someone else’s desires, but as her own.
Psychological body horror
The term ‘body horror’ refers to movies that place the human body as the center of the story, exploring the unnatural transformation of it, for whatever reason the story may provide. It’s a subgenre that had a particular a rise in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with directors like David Cronenberg -the undisputable master-, who created iconic films such as Videodrome (1983) or The Fly (1986), and Clive Barker, who gave birth to the Hellraiser franchise. And what was so great about these films was the way in which they combined graphic imagery with a psychological approach, resulting in absolutely mind-bending and disturbing stories. I think body horror has always had a psychological element in it, so it’s not like Swallow is creating something new. However, this has been lost over time, and that is why I believe body horror is one of the most difficult subgenres to master nowadays, mainly because the overuse of gore in horror films often results in pure exploitation or torture porn.
Swallow is an outstanding modern example of body horror inasmuch as it does not rely on this type of gore, but on subtly inducing the physical sensations in the viewer’s mind and body, allowing for some truly cringe-worthy moments. I’m not exaggerating when I say that during the scene in which Hunter swallows a pin I was literally gagging. This, to me, was probably the most outstanding aspect of the film, because as a fan of horror classics, Swallow felt refreshing and original in its return to the basics.
All of this is heightened by -and basically couldn’t work without- Hailey Bennett’s impressive performance. I had read the praise from critics beforehand, but as I had only seen Bennett before in average films like The Girl on the Train (2016) or really bad ones like The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008), I was still skeptical about her acting. I must say I stand corrected, because Bennett’s portrayal of Hunter is absolutely riveting, emotionally driven and troubling, all at the same time.
Another notable aspect of the film is the cinematography, which I believe works perfectly in showing the many colors and possibilities of body horror. Katelin Arizmendi's use of pseudo-monochromatic palettes and a predominantly symmetric framing contrasts with the theme, reflecting an apparent image of everything being in its place, when in reality behind that hides pure chaos.
There is nothing I enjoy more than a great horror debut. I might even jump ahead and say that with Swallow, Carlo Mirabella-Davis joins the group of directors such as Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers, who are proving, film after film, that we are in fact living the days of a Horror Renaissance. Needless to say, I expect to see more of him soon -hopefully working hand-in-hand with Hailey Bennett- and more of the rebirth of the lost art of body horror.