This past weekend I was able to digitally attend the 2022 Overlook Film Festival, which granted me the privilege of placing my lucky eyes on some fantastic genre cinema. Drug traffickers, puppets, disgraced streamers, live-in caretakers – there were a lot of sights to see, and not a single one was a stinker. Enjoy some capsule reviews!
Swallowed (dir. – Carter Smith)
Perhaps the film at Overlook with the strongest ability to stick in one’s mind and guts, Swallowed is one of those special films that redefines itself every few minutes, providing to the viewer a riveting, unpredictable experience. The story follows Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon), two friends having a celebratory night out on the eve of the former’s departure for Los Angeles, where he plans to pursue a career in the adult film industry. It’s supposed to be a light night of drinking, dancing, and reminiscing, but Dom has a surprise planned for his buddy: before they part ways, he’s been hired to do a quick job transporting illegal drugs for a third party. It’s not the smartest gesture of kindness, but Dom means well. Unfortunately, when Dom’s employer forces he and Ben to swallow the mysterious product at gunpoint, it places our duo of protagonists on a path to disaster.
Writer/director Carter Smith (The Ruins) serves a touching portrait of friendship, using the framework of a brutal thriller to explore themes of queer intimacy, accountability, and the danger of simply existing in a world that isn’t kind to those who live alternative lifestyles. Most impressively is the way the sexuality of our lead characters is handled. So often themes like these are piled on thick at the expense of story, but here it’s integrated into the proceedings flawlessly — Swallowed is undoubtedly queer cinema, but could easily have mainstream appeal on account of how well it functions as a thriller. Basically, I could spring this one on a homophobe and they might enjoy it despite themselves — one of many tools on the path to changing hearts and minds.
The duo of central performances are exceptional. The friendship Dom and Benjamin share feels true to life, and as their relationship develops, we get an intuitive window into their past – a sign of a very smart script. Later in the movie we meet a character played by the legendary Mark Patton. His is a deliciously evil role, both slimy and well-motivated, and Patton makes a strong case for himself as a talent beyond his niche notoriety in the horror world. Hopefully we get to see him flex his chops in the years to come.
Carter Smith made a short film a few years back called Bugcrush with which Swallowed has a clever connection. If anything, it functions as an unsettling companion piece to this feature, and I highly demand you seek it out. Of all the films at Overlook this year, Swallowed is the one I suspect will haunt me most.
Deadstream (dir. – Vanessa Winter, Joseph Winter)
While the pool is not very deep, I can confidently state that Deadstream has the best nose-picking joke in horror history. Wait, scratch that — in CINEMA history. It’s one of many hilarious gags employed to tickle and terrify in this found footage spectacular that owes more than a little to Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (In my house, the full title is used). Written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter (the latter also starring), Deadstream follows a day in the life of Shawn Ruddy, a disgraced live-streamer trying to earn back his reputation by spending the night in an extremely haunted house. Naturally, things don’t go well.
A wimp by nature, Shawn has thrown away the spark plugs to his car and padlocked the door behind him, vowing to all who dare to watch his stream that he must explore any strange occurrence in real time. No running from bumps in the night, and no hiding under a blanket until the sun comes up. It’s a spot on parody of those intrepid few who make their living by broadcasting their every move, but the parody soon becomes satire as we learn more about Shawn’s past and the nature of the haunting itself.
Practical gore gags unspool at an exponential rate while Shawn gets that much more terrified. Winter’s performance is absolutely hilarious, consisting partially of the rambling speech inherent to internet narcissists, but mostly he just screams like a little bitch. And who could blame him? What he encounters is equal parts gross and terrifying.
The Winters (they’re married!) smartly establish the geography of the house, milking every nook and cranny for maximum terror, while adhering to a complicated, but airtight found footage framing. They’ve even figured out a clever way to incorporate a score without breaking the framing device. That’s never been done before. In terms of the subgenre, not since Butterfly Kisses has the found footage style been so cleanly integrated with story. Between this and Rob Savage’s Dashcam, a lot of innovation is occuring within a subgenre that so many have been trying to call dead for years. We’ve all heard of Chekhov’s Gun, but Deadstream may be the only movie in existence that employs Chekhov’s EVERYTHING.