Private things “go down” in public toilets. Waste is flushed. Sex acts are exchanged. Sometimes violence happens.
Rest stops, park bathrooms and other subgenres of shared toilets are places where the border between public and private is very thin. It’s a border that’s been hotly contested throughout history. Two thrillers that screened at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival heighten these anxieties by doubling the number of borders at play inside public restrooms. Offering a queer perspective, Swallowed punches through national and gender boundaries in a pivotal rest stop scene. Set almost entirely in a public men’s room, Glorious also plunges gender anxieties while adding a comical cosmic layer that laughs at our humanity.
Both films build their horror upon anxieties about porous boundaries once thought closed. Together they show that public bathrooms are more than sites where humans and waste pass through. By brilliantly situating these liminal spaces along national and cosmic borders, Swallowed and Glorious lift the lid and expose these sites as places where meaning can be excreted.
In Carter Smith’s Swallowed, Ben (Cooper Koch) is a young gay man about to leave his one-horse town for a fresh start in the L.A. porn industry. But before he goes, his best friend Dom (Jose Colon) wants to send him off with some start-up cash. He’s volunteered to swallow what he thinks are drugs and drive into Mexico, where he’ll meet Alice (Jena Malone) and her mysterious contact. Except, there’s too much for Dom to take, so Ben has to become a mule. All seems fine, even a little sweet, but when the two stop at a roadside bathroom, their naivete gets punched in the gut, and all hell threatens to break loose from the inside out.
Swallowed’s already established the queer intimacy between Ben and Dom, but once the pair are no longer the only ones using the restroom, the suspense begin to rise. Ben is visibly queer; a character billed only as “Randy the Redneck” (Michael Shawn Curtis) assumes the pair are in the bathroom for sex. He then feels his masculinity is in danger. In a fit of racist homophobia, he jabs Dom in the gut, causing him to double over and retch. Men’s rooms are where masculinities mingle. Homophobic violence like that exacted upon Dom is a form of border patrol, one trying to reaffirm a straight and contained idea of manhood.
Once Ben and Dom stumble outside and see their slashed tires, the second border becomes palpable. The homophobic attack takes on a nationalist quality: The assailant has reaffirmed both masculine and American walls. His country, the one he’s enacting violence for, is a heterosexual nation. He flees to the land of safety while the boys are stranded in Mexico. They don’t know the language. They don’t know their rights. Dom is clearly in need of medical attention, but they can’t seek any because of the cargo crawling through their colons. The bathroom becomes the point of no return. As queers, the boys show the flexibility of American manhood. As smugglers, they prove borders to be far more slippery than we’re allowed to believe.
But it’s not drugs threatening to break out inside of them. As the horror reaches its climax in a Mexican cabin, we realize the boys aren’t holding your basic street narcotics but very poisonous bugs valued for their hallucinogenic properties. For both of them to survive, they will need to find new depths to their intimacy. This intricate interplay of anxieties makes Smith’s film unique in queer body horror. As queer smugglers with bugs in their bodies, Ben and Dom trouble three layers of anxieties at once—those surrounding American manhood, those around the permeability of its borders and those concerned with bodies becoming colonized by contagion.
Glorious is similarly concerned with body barriers, but the literal bugs in Swallowed become microscopic germs. In this Rebekah McKendry’s cosmic horror comedy, Wes (Ryan Kwanten) is a lost and lonely man trapped in a dingy park bathroom with a demigod (J.K. Simmons). Leaving us unsure whether to laugh, cry or vomit at the unsightliness of the urinals or fecal droplets on Wes’ face, the paranoia of contamination is the first tremble of its wry horror/comedy. It’s a brilliantly disturbing device that taps into invisible but genuine fears, especially amid a global health crisis. The entire space becomes electrified with danger.
Wes finds himself locked inside with his destiny after a tough night mourning his failed relationship. Unlike Randy the Redneck or the drug dealer in Swallowed, Wes’ masculinity is far less rigid. He calls himself a “piece of shit.” He’s needy in relationships. He cries. We get a thorough sense that Wes is a gentle soul. It’s Kwanten’s openness that reaffirms Wes’ fear of the unclean. He’s physically and emotionally vulnerable.
Yet, as in Swallowed, McKendry uses the homosocial setting of the men’s room to address the boundaries of heterosexuality, though with a more playful air than in Smith’s film. The otherworldly being sits on the other side of a glory hole. The film is called Glorious, after all. When it sounds like the deity might require a sexual sacrifice, Wes is understandably unsure but is ultimately willing to open up his orientation for the sake of humanity. Of course, the deity with an unspeakable name finds it all quite laughable. As if Wes’ fleshy “human penis” could “save the universe.” No, he requires a more Promethean offering.
By shattering the border between the cosmos and humanity, McKendry builds a critical layer to her horror/comedy. With this, she can show our human limits, from our susceptibility to diseases to the failures of our language. In this so-called “secular age,” the dividing line between myth and reality seems firmer than ever. Supernatural horror can easily break down this wall, and the Lovecraftian being in the other stall is particularly delicious. He offers a macro-perspective, one that looks down at us from high above and laughs at our delights and miseries. Cosmic deities like the one Simmons so enjoyably portrays show us how silly we are—how inconsequential—which is both terrifying and tickling.
It’s not a coincidence that Wes finds himself with a god in a public restroom. Swallowed and Glorious are by no means the only films that show bathrooms as points of transience, of literal and cultural flux. They are highly personal places where diverse groups of people come and go near one another. The public toilets in both films extend the American masculinities enacted within them. The rest stop in Swallowed is cold, garish and unrelenting. The park toilet in Glorious is dark, murky and messy. In both, a crumbling public infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with people’s private needs creates sites of anxiety. What these two films do exceptionally well is add the terror of borders to this horror. The losses of nation and humanity in Swallowed and Glorious are vital to the terror we experience along with their characters. Whether on the boundaries of country or cosmos, these films tap into deeply held worries that these lines are less solid than we like to believe.
B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.