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SYFY WIRE Fantastic Fest

Swallow is an ode to Carlo Mirabella-Davis's grandmother, mental illness, and grasping for control

By Kristy Puchko
Haley Bennett in Swallow

At first glance, Swallow may not seem like a love story. The critically heralded horror-thriller follows an unhappy housewife in a quest of self-discovery through self-destruction that leads to her swallowing things — a marble, a pushpin, a battery, and more dangerous baubles. But within its gag-inducing body horror, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis spins a great deal of warmth, humor, and empathy for its harried heroine. And that all comes from the love he has for his late grandmother.

After being blown away at Swallow's Texas premiere at Fantastic Fest, I was eager to sit down with Mirabella-Davis to learn more about his mesmerizing movie and its matriarchal origins.

Sitting at a café table beneath an awning pitter-patting with rain, Mirabella-Davis shared the source of Swallow's story. "I was inspired by my grandmother, who was a homemaker in the 1950s, who had various different rituals of control," Mirabella-Davis said, referring to a habit one might establish to give themselves a sense of control or safety. "She was in an unhappy marriage, and she developed obsessive hand-washing [as a compulsion]. She would go through four cakes of soap a day, and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I think [she did it] in an attempt to find order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in."

His grandmother was struggling with mental illness, but the tools offered to manage it in the 1950s could be horrifically harmful. "My grandfather, at the behest of the doctors, put her into a mental institution where they gave her electric shock therapy and insulin shock therapy. And [they performed] a non-consensual lobotomy, so she lost her sense of taste and smell," Mirabella-Davis shared.

He reflected, "I always thought that it was very punitive — that she was being punished for not living up to society's expectations of what they felt a wife or a mother should be. I wanted to make a movie about that."

Swallow centers on Hunter (Haley Bennett), a beautiful young wife with a handsome and wealthy husband, a gorgeous home, and plenty of free time. Yet she's achingly unhappy, swallowed up by everyone else's expectations of her. She must be the pleasant wife, the consummate hostess, the devoted daughter-and-law, and soon the doting mother. Overwhelmed by all of these wants from others, Hunter finds space for herself in the secret of her own swallowings.

It was for a simple reason that Mirabella-Davis made the leap from his grandmother's ritual of control to pica, an eating disorder that involves eating inedible items. "Hand washing is not very cinematic," he said simply. "So I remembered seeing an image of all the contents [surgically extracted from] someone's stomach who had pica. I thought that the objects almost seemed like an archaeological dig. I wanted to know what drew the person to those artifacts. It almost seemed like a holy communion or something mystical, and I wanted to know more."

His research led him to world-renowned pica expert Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, who became a consultant on the film. "She actually wrote a case study of Hunter as if Hunter was a patient," Mirabella-Davis said, "Which was a fascinating document that was very important to me and to our production. She had read the script and wrote that. So I worked with her on the authenticity of it."

To better understand his grandmother's struggles, Mirabella-Davis accessed her case file from the institution, which was a complicated emotional experience. "[Reading her file], it was really heartbreaking and illuminating," he said. "It was amazing to read about phobias that my grandmother had that I also have had and that we never talked about. Just the realization of how those things are passed through the bloodstream of the generations is interesting. So I feel very connected to her. I hope, wherever she is, that she sees the movie and feels that her pain did not go unnoticed."

Mirabella-Davis made Swallow to give voice to the grandmother he felt was silenced by a society that didn't understand her. But he hopes her story will help others feel seen. "I really feel there's a lot of pain that goes unnoticed in the world and in America," he explained. "I think one of the biggest problems in society is isolation, that people are made to feel that what they're experiencing is not universal, that they're an anomaly." He spoke to the stigma of mental illness and how this feeling of isolation might delay people in need of help from seeking it. "That's where things get really dangerous."

In this regard, Mirabella-Davis hopes his film can help dismantle such dangerous isolation. "Someone said about the movie in one of our reviews that film could be an empathy machine," he said. "I think that's true. We enter into the sacred temple of the movie theater, and we have an emotional experience with a group of people, and we leave feeling less alone. We leave feeling like we're all connected. We're all dealing with similar things."

"I think one of the powers of film is that — hopefully — you can make a movie that highlights someone's experience that hasn't been seen," Mirabella-Davis said, "Hopefully, it connects with people and they feel like, 'Oh, I've been there, and I've felt that.' I think movies can really increase empathy and fight prejudice. I hope that Swallow is a movie that does that."

Spoilers: It is. 

Swallow releases in the U.S. on March 6.