People suffering from arachnophobia beware: Infested (aka Vermin) is your new nightmare.
Creature features are a dime a dozen and with the advent of cheap FX, we’ve seen plenty of bad animal attack films. This is why a film like Infested is so refreshing: not only does it look pretty good, it’s properly scary.
Kaleb (Théo Christine) is a hustling entrepreneur who lives with his sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko) in a run down apartment complex in Paris. The late twenty-something siblings are on their own after their mother’s death (Kaleb is still quite raw; Manon: less so) and they don’t get along. Kaleb is selling collectible sneakers while Manon is doing loud home renovations that interferes with the electricity keeping his collection of exotic animals alive.
Infested first opens with a sequence in which armed men scour the desert for rare spiders. After pumping sedative gas into a hole, one man is horribly attacked and killed. His colleagues barely pause or bat an eye: they’re off to sell their dangerous goods to men like Ali (Samir Nait), a convenience store owner who hustles black market items out of the back of his store.
Kaleb buys the spider from Ali on a whim, housing it in a water-damaged shoebox that provides the arachnid a convenient means of escape. From that moment on, the spider is on the move, procreating and killing indiscriminately until the entire building is infested.
Of course Infested is hardly content to introduce a few small spiders (visually depicted as a mix of real and CGI). Director Sébastien Vaniček and his co-writer Florent Bernard are fond of having characters remind us that the Darwin effect dictates that the creatures will grow to match the size of their environment threats. Which is to say: the spiders get bigger as the film progresses.
Characters tend to take a back seat to their animal antagonist in creature features, but Infested wisely understands the need for a certain amount of audience investment in the humans driving the story. In this capacity, Christine does a good job of anchoring the film: young, good looking Kaleb is stubborn and petulant to a fault, but he’s also polite and resolutely a good guy. He’s actually complicated, even when he’s engaging in self-destructive behaviour like driving others away with verbal outbursts and refusing to take responsibility for his actions.
The stubbornness is built into Kaleb’s back story with both his sister, whom he resents for forgetting their mother, as well as his best friend from childhood, Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield). The latter pair have a contentious backstory that is revealed over the course of the film, but Kaleb’s reactions to Jordy’s sudden reappearance in his life suggests a gentle queer reading between the two friends.
Also in the mix as arachnophobic public officer Lila (Sofia Lesaffre) who has accompanied Jordy on the ill-timed visit, as well as Kaleb’s close friend/lackey Mathys (Jérôme Niel), who is eager to please and quick to react.
It takes a while for the infestation to reach a tipping point, by which time several citizens of the building have been introduced and killed off, including the cleaning lady and Kaleb’s favourite tenant/surrogate mother. And while few of the deaths are surprising and several are off-screen, it hardly matters because Vaniček is so adept at crafting jump scares and wringing tension out of his set pieces.
In some cases this is done very tongue-in-cheek, such as when Lila looks in the mirror but fails to see a handful of fist sized spiders scatter out of the vent behind her. She has an adverse reaction to seeing one and locks herself in the shower, prompting Jordy to repeatedly try – and fail – to humanely collect the spider for release. It’s not until he’s startled and kills it that they realize how many others are in the tight space with them.
Not unlike [REC] there’s an additional factor contributing to the danger. Despite the group’s attempts to evacuate the neighbours, the building has been put lockdown under the auspices of a health crisis, meaning there is nowhere for them to go. In a desperate bid to get to the basement, the group must make their way down darkened stairwells with swarming hordes of eight legged creatures and – in the most memorable sequence of the film – down a hallway with a 1 minute light timer.
In true thriller fashion, one individual must stay behind to crank the dial and keep the lights on while the others make their way slooooowly past thick cobwebs and motionless spiders. The tension here is unbearable, accentuated by cinematographer Alexandre Jamin‘s retreating/360 spinning camerawork that highlights just how long and congested the corridor is.
One of the best aspects of Infested is the delicious anticipation of knowing it’s a matter of when, not if, the next attack will occur. Vaniček excels at drawing out the tension to the breaking point, then springing it on the audience (sometimes literally, in the case of one instance when the spiders begin jumping).
If the film falters, it is in the politically motivated third act that finds the ragtag group of survivors battling both spiders and the police determined to keep them imprisoned inside. There’s a heavy dose of commentary about how Kaleb and the others are treated as mostly poor and racialized (Kaleb is also repeatedly mistaken for a drug dealer throughout the film by an older white male character). The politics aren’t bad, but this subplot comes to prominence late in the film, when is unfortunately when Infested is contending with the resolution of Kaleb’s emotional arcs with both Jordy and Manon.
It’s a lot for the film to negotiate and not all of it lands. As a result, the last act is both too slight and too rushed to entirely satisfy, which is disappointing considering how strong the first two thirds of the film are.
Despite the wobbly ending, the combination of suspense, scares and solid character development easily makes Infested one of the best creature features in recent memory. Expect plenty of audible gasps, squeals, and uncomfortable shifting in seats for what will undoubtedly become the new generation’s Arachnophobia. 4/5
Infested / Vermines played at Fantastic Fest 2023. It will be released on Shudder in 2024.