Infested title image
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106 min.
Release Date

Killer spider movies tend to be direct-to-video releases, SyFy Channel originals, or skippable streaming fare, best relegated to the so-bad-they’re-actually-bad corner of the horror genre. If there’s ever been a credible one, it’s Steven Spielberg-produced Arachnophobia (1990), with its Hollywood production values, affable stars, use of in-camera effects, and hundreds of real Avondale spiders—harmless to humans, but I wouldn’t want one as a pet. Today, most when-animals-attack features deploy cheap CGI creepy crawlies for a goofy, winking flair, epitomized by Eight Legged Freaks (2002). Or, in the case of Itsy Bitsy (2019), the filmmakers hoped for a somewhat serious tone, but the subpar effects turned the thing into an unintentional comedy. The killer spider movie hasn’t featured a marriage of worthwhile storytelling and formal execution for over three decades, so Infested is a welcome surprise. Making its US debut on the horror streamer Shudder, the French production delivers both hair-raising scares and a worthy presentation that elevates the B-movie material. 

Given the sub-subgenre’s history, calling Infested, formerly known as Vermin, the best killer spider movie since Arachnophobia isn’t saying much. And yet, it’s not inaccurate. Director Sébastien Vaniček makes his feature debut here, penning the script alongside Florent Bernard, and the result has earned him attention. Vaniček has since signed with CAA and landed a deal to helm a new Evil Dead spin-off movie for producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. And for a good reason, too—Vaniček and Bernard conceived a nerve-fraying scenario that finds a locked-down apartment complex teeming with deadly spiders, and the little monsters seem to grow and learn with each new generation to horrifying degrees. While that may sound like trite stuff, Vaniček delivers an experience with the intensity of [Rec] (2007)—or, if you prefer, Quarantine (2008)—and the social dynamics of Attack the Block (2011). 

After an unsettling Dubai-set prologue establishing the resident spiders’ vague origins, Vaniček introduces Kaleb (Théo Christine), a small-time hustler with big dreams of opening an insect and reptile zoo. He conceived the idea with his old friend Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield), but the two have since become estranged, leaving Kaleb to house a collection of millipedes, scorpions, and frogs in his bedroom. On the side, Kaleb hawks sneakers to wannabe gangsters and attempts to improve his living situation, aided by his sister, Manon (Lisa Nyarko), the unofficial handyperson of their rundown apartment complex. The story kicks into gear after Kaleb buys a new spider from an underground shop, names it Rhianna, and the arachnid escapes its shoebox home and quickly begins laying eggs and spreading its babies around the complex. What’s terrifying is how, not long after the first death, the authorities close down the building, apparently aware that there’s no stopping this particularly invasive species of deadly spider. Indeed, in a mild application of social commentary, the third act finds Kaleb and company facing off against increasingly large spiders and the authorities.

InfestedLocking his characters inside with a host of spiders, Vaniček’s early work of establishing several neighbor characters, ranging from kindly to racist, means Infested boasts a sizable body count. Kaleb and company use their situation like a trapped-in-an-elevator episode of your favorite ‘80s sitcom; their forced proximity allows them to work through their personal hangups. Kaleb and Manon’s parents are both gone, leaving a need to heal their open wounds. There’s also the tension between Kaleb and Jordy to be resolved. But few of these perfunctory character beats have a significant impact, even if they’re handled with a serviceable dramatic integrity. Fortunately, Kaleb and Jordy have just enough insect knowledge to explain why these spiders, in some manner of compressed Darwinism, adapt and grow at an accelerated rate to handle their larger-than-normal prey: humans. However absurd the scenario sounds, at least one character observes how this “makes no sense at all.”

Several bravado sequences raise the tension meter beyond its limits and make Infested stand out as a thoughtfully conceived chunk of genre cinema. At one point, Kaleb and company must race up several flights of stairs, chased by cat-sized spiders wriggling after them. Only light will stop the eight-legged beasts in their tracks, yet our survivors have nothing more than some short-lived flares and a wind-up flashlight that lasts just a few seconds—enough to stall the spiders momentarily while the others run for their lives in the dark. Elsewhere, a breathless sequence involves Kaleb and company navigating through a hallway overrun by hundreds of spiders, which have made the passage into an extended web tunnel. Add to this the fickle lighting timer, which requires Manon to stay behind to turn the dial while her brother and friends pass through the nest. Eventually, Manon must attempt to speed through the corridor before the timer runs out, resulting in an unbelievably intense sequence shot with evocative lighting and topsy-turvy camera movements by cinematographer Alexandre Jamin. 

Dazzlingly executed sequences such as these deserve comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the ultimate when-animals-attack film. Vaniček’s visceral and unrelenting direction also takes a cue from the New French Extremity horror movies of the early 2000s, with the movie delighting in some nasty moments of gore. If the cobwebs occasionally look no more convincing than a Halloween store product, their tactility is refreshing. Infested even features a few practical spiders alongside the CGI crawlies, though even the digital ones look scary. However, much of the emotional impact falls flat, evidenced in an overwrought sequence awash in red light where the characters break down in an endless outpouring of tears and lament that doesn’t have the impact it should. Similarly, Kaleb learns a curious lesson about spiders by the end: that they’re more afraid of us than we are of them. But given how many people become spider food here and how much terror the film deploys, the point is hardly reinforced. Perhaps Vaniček intends a theme of leaving Nature alone, lest it lash out in nightmarish ways. Fair enough. But this notion feels like an unsupported afterthought next to Infested’s primary mode as an excellent killer spider movie that will have you squirming and writhing in your seat.

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