‘Infested’ Review: Effective French Chiller Unleashes Spiders on a Parisian Housing Project

‘Infested’ Review: Effective French Chiller Unleashes Spiders on a Parisian Housing Project

In an odd quirk of distribution timing, this month has seen the arrival of no less than two imported, semi-comedic thrillers featuring decrepit apartment building invaded by giant spiders. Already playing U.S. theaters is the Australian “Sting,” which is fun, if formulaic. In a whole other class, however, is French “Infested,” a first feature by director Sebastien Vanicek following several impressive shorts. An instant minor genre classic, it is fun and then some — a conceptually unremarkable but resourceful, energetic, stylish and good-humored creature feature with above-average human character interest. 

That achievement has been duly noted: Intended as a streaming premiere, “Vermines” (the original title) pleased its producer such that he apparently insisted on a home-turf theatrical release, despite the long delay that imposes on its launch in other formats under French law. It’s seen big-screen release in numerous nations since late last year, though in the U.S., it goes straight to specialty streaming platform Shudder on April 26. Meanwhile, Vanicek has already hit the big time: He was reportedly hand-picked by Sam Raimi to direct the next feature in the “Evil Dead” franchise (which he will also script with “Infested” co-writer Florent Bernard).

A prologue finds several Arabic men methodically searching for something just beneath the desert floor. When it is found, one of them gets bitten, and is unceremoniously offed by his companions as they gather multiple specimens to ship overseas. Somehow one of those arachnids ends up in the backroom of a cluttered Paris store, where it is spied by Kaleb (Theo Christine), whose many hustles include collecting and selling exotic species. He takes it back to the apartment in a run-down suburban public housing project that he shares with sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko). They’re at each other’s throats, not least because she hopes to refurbish and sell the flat inherited from their late mother, while he has no intention of leaving.

He arrives to find she’s once again turned off the heat needed to sustain his bedroom menagerie’s many critters in glass tanks. Later, she infuriates him further by inviting over friends Lila (Sofia Lesaffre) and Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield) — a big no-no because the two young men were best mates before a serious falling out that goes unexplained for some time. Now Kaleb’s bestie is Mathys (Jerome Neil), a fellow building resident juggling even more dubiously legal side hustles than his pal.

Their squabbling hardly makes a stir here, in a boisterous environ of myriad ethnicities and immigrant nationalities crammed into a building whose crumbling infrastructure is much complained about but never repaired. Soon, however, there will be something far worse for everyone to worry about: Kaleb’s exotic new acquisition (whom he dubs “Rihanna”) turns out to be an apex predator. It wastes little time getting loose, then hatching offspring who rapidly expand in size and number, a population boom in which the two-legged tenants play a helpless, grisly role. By the time Kaleb and his peers realize what’s going on, escape is near-impossible — police have sealed off the building for quarantine. 

Vanicek has said he conceived the film in part to counter the usual screen image of banlieue housing complexes as hubs for nothing but gangs, drugs and crime. While those ills exist, his own life experience underlined how they also sustain complex multicultural communities that despite all problems are largely harmonious and functional. There’s a fond humor to “Infested’s” portrait of one such microcosm, with people of African, Middle Eastern, Asian and other backgrounds getting along in argumentative yet neighborly style. The sourest note is struck by one firmly xenophobic white male resident (Emmanuel Bonami) who’s convinced everyone else is a drug kingpin.

Christine immediately wins us over with his motormouthed protagonist, and the other leads are equally likable. Vanicek has an almost Preston Sturges-like knack for whipping his ensemble into amusing frenzies of verbal combat. When the astute, urgent editorial pace stops at one later point to allow a moment of collective grief, it’s a measure of this “monster bug” movie’s heart that the tearful pause is actually rather touching. 

Still, the main attraction here is seeing a large human habitat turn into a giant icky spider web, and “Infested” certainly works on that visceral level of creepy-crawly dread, panic and recoil. There are scary, hairy set-pieces, notably one with Lila trapped in a shower stall, then a perilous group walk down a basement corridor. 

Throughout, the director and his collaborators maintain a taut balance between comedy, character, suspense and thrills, with first-rate contributions on presumably modest means from all tech and design departments. Creature effects are sharp and plentiful, yet kept judiciously brief. There’s atmospheric tension to spare in Alexandre Jamin’s cinematography and Arnaud Bouniort’s production design. A giddily nerve-jangling overall effect is nicely heightened by Douglas Cavanna and Xavier Caux’s original score, plus a few choice Gallic hip-hop tracks. 

If the story’s last act in a parking garage is arguably a bit anticlimactic after preceding events, “Infested” remains a smart treat for horror buffs, its tonal control capped by an unexpectedly low-key yet perfect fadeout.

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