The Spider’s Stratagem: Vanicek Weaves Familiar Web with Debut Creature Feature
Creature features have an odd way of satisfying a variety of our escapist desires, often balancing a sense of kitsch while also courting innate primordial fears about creepy crawlies or predatory critters. There’s a certain sense of seduction often innate to these kinds of stories, challenging our sense of curiosity, sending us back to a nostalgic sense of wonder through mainlining dread both potent and primitive. Sébastien Vanicek’s debut Vermin doesn’t quite manage to succeed in either tapping into these fears or managing to entertain, taking itself rather seriously but without providing the necessary gravitas to relate vicariously to a handful of characters plagued by a newly discovered species of viciously venomous arachnids. Vanicek’s eight legged behemoths could have used some of the invitational seduction of the titular predator in Mary Howitt’s classic poem “The Spider and the Fly.” However, this film doesn’t construct a parlour anyone would likely be beguiled to explore.
A nest of deadly spiders are unearthed in the desert by a group of men peddling exotic black market insects and animals, but not without several casualties to their group. One of the spiders ends up being purchased by Kaleb (Theo Christine), a young man nearing thirty who has an interest in collecting exotic creatures, and he excitedly adds this new specimen to his collection, naming it Rihanna. But Kaleb is currently embroiled in a familial crisis with his sister, Manon (Lisa Nykaro), as they are in disagreement of how to deal with the apartment they’ve recently inherited from their deceased mother as they cannot afford to complete necessary significant repairs. During their petty arguments, Rihanna escapes and quickly multiplies, and the deadliness of her species soon decimates their apartment complex, alerting the authorities to a swiftly spreading scourge.
Of course, the 1990 American camp classic Arachnophobia comes to mind, a zany comedy where a suburban white family is terrorized by rapidly reproducing South American killer spiders. But Vanicek’s urban youth setting desires to create the energy of Joe Cornish’s 2011 breakout title Attack the Block. Unfortunately, the script from Vanicek and Florent Bernard (who has written almost exclusively for French television) doesn’t allow Theo Christine to display the same charisma as John Boyega battling extra terrestrials (though Christine’s recent stint in Neill Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo suggests he’s on the verge of becoming a breakout). As his sister, Lisa Nykaro receives little character development other than her representing the significant economic situation. More interesting is Sofia Lesaffre’s (Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables, 2019) Lila, a ‘municipal officer’ who keeps being referred to as a cop, though her connections to law enforcement prove to be useless. Jerome Niels plays the doofy best friend (who gets dialogue referring to the spiders such as “If they keep up with that Darwin thing…”) and for whatever reason, Finnegan Oldfield pops up to battle and run away from the growing horde (though with less energy than his latest stint in Michel Hazanvicius’ meta zom-com Final Cut, 2022).
A little comedic relief could have gone a long way in Vermin. Although it doesn’t need to go so far as something like Eight Legged Freaks (2002), it should have made better use of its character development before taking a hard left into survival tropes (something like the deadly snake throwing a wrench in the plans of Klaus Kinski’s kidnapping terrorists in 1981’s Venom, for instance). As it is, Vanicek has created a film going through genre motions but without the necessary energy to make it interesting. There’s no web and flow, only chaotic running around until the inevitable finale where the arachnids are (ambiguously, by the closing credits, natch) subdued. Those actually suffering from arachnophobia might break a sweat, but for anyone else, Vermin likely won’t have enough brains or bite.
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – International Critics’ Week (Closing Film). 103 Mins.