Figure 1 – Sting (L) and Infested (R) posters

Got a spider phobia? Afraid of insects and arachnids? Then don’t read this column! (Also, some spoilers ahead—SPOILER WARNING!)

My two films for this week are both “foreign” (i.e., not made in Hollywood) films; the first one (Sting) was made in New South Wales, Australia; and the second one (Infested/Vermin) is from France (In a “small town?” May be why it’s got “mass quantities” of spiders in it). Although there’s not really a whole lot new in either movie, I found them both terrific standard horror genre (old style) films. But because Infested was released first (December 2023) I’ll talk about that one first.

**************SOME SPOILERS**************

Infested was released with the title Vermin (Vermines in French), but when it was picked up for a North American release it was retitled Infested. It’s available on SHUDDER and, as far as I know, only available in French with English subtitles. The movie stars unknown actors (at least unknown to me) Théo Christine as Kaleb, Sofia Lesaffre as Lila, Kaleb’s sister, and Jérôme Niel as his friend Mathys.

The film opens in a hilly desert country (in Dubai, we find out later) where a young man in a keffiyeh, carrying a machete, is overturning rocks, looking for something. Finding a fist-sized hole bordered with spiderwebs, he calls to his companions, who come to him bearing various items including a cylinder, which we find out is full of some greenish poison gas. They attach a hose to it and vent the gas into the hole. After a few moments, he looks into the hole and we see a spider scuttle up the sides and jump on the young man’s face, apparently biting him. He falls away, screaming, and the hole vents another half-dozen or so spiders, which are quickly caught in plastic containers by the companions. The young man gets no help from his companions. (‘Nuff said, as Stan Lee used to say.) The spiders are sold to a dealer in wildlife, who boxes them up for mail.

Switching to France, we meet Kaleb, a young wanna-be shoe seller hotshot, who lives in what I assume is France’s equivalent of the Projects in some major American cities, or Council Flats in Britain; i.e., a dumping-ground for the low-income, low-hope people (usually people of colour who are living any way they can). Flats like this are often badly maintained and in bad repair; this one’s hall lights are on sensors and timers, so if nothing’s moving they turn off. This building has two giant coin-shaped sides, facing each other, and several regular rectangular sides with an open square in the middle. Kaleb lives partway up one of the “coins.” He’s bought some jewelry and a spider from Ali, who has a whole menagerie of various wildlife—spiders, snakes, scorpions, etc., all probably dangerous and/or venomous, and all probably illegal to own. Kaleb is taken with this spider and brings it home for his own menagerie, which is smaller, with various insects and arthropods. This spider, we know, is one Ali got in the mail.

For various reasons, Kaleb’s new acquisition is put in a shoe box, which was damaged by being in Kaleb’s locker in the basement; unknown to him, the box has a hole in it, and the spider leaves. You can guess where this is going. We’ve seen it before; the difference here is that Kaleb is not a bad kid, and he’s trying to help others; we really want him (and his sister) to survive the coming horror—and come it will. This particular spider, besides being extremely venomous, is also extremely prolific—and we find out that, as explained in the film—as a response to being threatened, its daughters grow to several times their own body weight. So the building quickly becomes overwhelmed with spiders and webs.

Figure 2 – Kaleb and new friend

Everything’s exacerbated by a cop who is sure Kaleb’s dealing drugs (which he isn’t); and when one resident gets bitten, the police and public health people—who think there may be an infectious disease in play—surround the building and won’t let anyone out, the situation gets really tense for those who’ve figured out the problem and want to leave.

The climactic scenes take place in the building’s basement parking structure, which is made scarier by the lack of light (these spiders don’t care for light) and the fact that they are big, aggressive, and have numbers on their side. I don’t want to spoil everything, but if you’re a fan of this type of film, you know what’s coming. Personally, I’d rate it about 4 out of 5.
**************SOME MORE SPOILERS**************

Sting, on the other hand, deals with just one little spider. As we find out in the opening scene, it’s not just any spider—this one comes from outer space in what looks like a meteorite, but is apparently an egg case. The movie stars Alyla Browne as Charlotte; Penelope Mitchell as Heather, the mother; Ryan Corr as Ethan, the stepfather; Noni Hazlehurst as Helga, the grandmother; Robyn Nevin as Gunter; and Jermaine Fowler as Frank, the exterminator. None of these people were familiar to me, but I thought they all did well. Charlotte is the putative star of the film (unless it’s Sting itself that is the star), but she is not a sympathetic character. In fact, all the characters except Helga are annoying and non-sympathetic at one time or another.
Although it’s set in New York City, it was filmed in Sydney, NSW, Australia. Several exterior shots that appear to be in New York are used throughout to establish place, though most of the film is done with interior sets. As opposed to Infested’s “Projects”-type building, this is a middle-class apartment building, more or less well managed; owned by Gunter (Robyn Nevin), who I believe is Helga’s sister (Noni Hazlehurst). Ethan, Charlotte’s stepfather (Ryan Corr) serves as maintenance/building manager in exchange for rent. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) is a very smart but uncontrolled 12-year-old who, through use of the building’s HVAC vents, makes herself free of the building, especially Gunter’s dolls, which she makes odd display pieces of. Charlotte also writes a commercial comic book, illustrated by Ethan. I suppose we’re supposed to like her, but I thought her a brat. Helga is deep in forgetfulness and spends most of her time knitting; Gunter spends as little money as she has to on maintaining the building, but Ethan makes do, as his drawing skills don’t bring in much money and he’s in danger of being replaced on Charlotte’s comic by the publisher.

We learn from the TV that an asteroid cluster has caused the worst weather in the state’s history, and we see a tiny asteroid break a window; after a while, it opens, and out comes a tinier spider. By the time Charlotte meets it, it’s grown a bit, and she decides to take it home and call it “Sting,” after Frodo’s “sword” in The Hobbit. She puts it in a bottle and feeds it bugs she finds. She also discovers it can whistle, and trains it to come when she whistles, for feeding.

Figure 3 – Charlotte and Sting

Charotte’s father is supposedly in Thailand. There’s some tension among Heather and Ethan because he’s not earning money, though she has a job in a hospital, possibly as a nurse. They have a baby, about a year old, named Liam. Charlotte doesn’t like being told what to do, especially by Ethan, so tensions are rising among all the family members.

After a while, Sting decides to go exploring and, after growing a bit, unscrews the top of her jar and heads out into the vents of the building. After it grows big enough—and Charlotte is completely oblivious of all this—it starts eating larger things: first, her neighbour’s cat; and we learn that Sting’s bite can paralyze its prey and probably liquefy the prey’s innards so Sting can slurp them up. So the neighbour disappers, and Helga hears noises in the walls and calls Frank, the exterminator.

I don’t want to spoil much more than this for this movie, but I will say that the family dynamics are not as well explored as they could be; we never do (well, at least I never did) get over the feeling that Charlotte’s a brat, even though she’s the lead character. Certainly people die, and Sting’s revealed to Charlotte (and the rest) as the villain—but at one point, Charlotte says to Ethan, “This is all my fault”—and he reassures her that it’s not. But I say, actually, it is. So I never felt good about Charlotte being the putative hero. Anyway, you can guess—both Lynne (the Beautiful and Talented) and I guessed pretty much all of it—what’s gonna happen.

The thing (besides the fact that they’re both pretty good scary movies) we liked best about both films is that they both used practical effects! Infested used real spiders (not all the spiders were CGI) where possible; and Sting used spider puppets with the control rods “painted out” in post-production. The practical effects in Sting were done by New Zealand’s Wētā Workshop, and Wētā’s Richard Taylor. Although I have reservations about some of the character writing in Sting, I overall recommend both films to anyone who likes these kinds of phobic scare films.

I’d be chuffed if you’d comment on this column. Comment here or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments, polite ones, are welcome! My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

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