Venice Critics Week closes with this skin-crawling French horror in which a housing project is beset by killer spiders
Dir: Sebastien Vanicek. France. 2023. 105mins
The inhabitants of a Parisian apartment block find themselves in a battle for survival after a resident unwittingly allows a venomous spider to escape and the building is locked down by authorities. It is a simple premise; one that could easily be pitched in the elevator of the rundown housing project in which it is set — if it wasn’t permanently out of order, that is. But debut feature director Sebastien Vanicek proves to be adept at wringing every drop of tension out of this slim narrative, elevating this B-movie creature feature to A-grade horror.
Vanicek slowly, expertly tightens the screws
The closing film of Venice Critics Week, Vermin follows on the heels of numerous ‘humans trapped in small space with deadly animal’ chillers; Burning Bright, Crawl, The Pool, Snakes On A Plane, etc. Yet this proves more queasily effective as it explores a universal, everyday fear — of creepy crawlies hiding in the dark — and plays it far straighter, and far more terrifyingly, than, say, Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia or Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks. Genre fans should certainly respond well and the film is striking and accessible enough to travel, particularly if buoyed by strong word of mouth. (Tandem is distributing in France, before it moves to Netflix there.)
In the decaying Arenes de Picasso housing project in the suburbs east of Paris — a now-ironically futuristic-looking 1970s estate with huge circular apartment blocks at either end — 20-something Kaleb (Theo Christine) is butting heads with his sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko), who wants to sell their run-down apartment following the death of their mother. Dealing in high-end trainers as a side hustle, Kaleb’s real passion is exotic animals and he keeps a menagerie in his bedroom. When he brings home a small unidentified spider, he has no idea of the danger that is lurking in its makeshift shoebox home — but we do, thanks to a dynamic Middle East desert-set opening sequence that leaves no doubt as to the animal’s deadly potential.
Of course, Kaleb’s spider immediately escapes — and from this point on, Vanicek slowly, expertly tightens the screws. This particular (fictitious) breed of spider is a prolific reproducer, and so one creature soon becomes hundreds. Cleverly, they look like ordinary house spiders, so early scenes, which utilise real spiders scuttling across walls or lingering at the edge of frame, bring a recognisable shiver. But these spiders have a bite that will kill a man in minutes, hence the building being quickly quarantined, and they can grow huge. Soon, Kaleb, Manon, Kaleb’s estranged friend Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield), Jordy’s girlfriend Lila (Sofia Lesaffre) and fellow resident Mathys (Jerome Neil) are facing off against eight-legged freaks the size of large dogs, rendered in seamless VFX detail.
There is another layer here, a long-simmering animosity between Kaleb and Jordy, childhood friends whose dreams of opening an exotic animal zoo for local kids were scuppered by a falling out. Additionally, this banlieu setting is an increasingly-familiar backdrop for tales of class discrimination, and there are undoubtedly allegorical elements at play here, too; its protagonists are the disadvantaged ‘vermin’ of Parisian society, ignored and effectively sacrificed by the authorities. Subtle and well-handled by both screenplay and performances, these elements take a distant back seat to the survival drama.
In this aspect, Vermin wears its influences on its sleeve in everything from its dark, claustrophobic multi-storey location (The Raid, Dredd, Rec) to its gory body horror (The Thing, Aliens). Yet it’s all done so very well. Alexandre Jaime’s kinetic, agile camerawork, which occasionally puts a disorienting bug-height angle on proceedings, proves immersive, while edits by Nassim Gordji-Tehrani and Thomas Fernandez are fast and jumpy. Throughout, an intense, string-heavy score by Douglas Cavanna and Xavier Caux combines with sound design that amplifies the scratching and scuttling of unseen legs, echoing the increasingly jangled nerves of both characters and audience.
Production company: My Box Productions
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Producer: Harry Tordjman
Screenplay: Sebastien Vanicek, Florent Bernard
Cinematography: Alexandre Jamin
Production design: Arnaud Bouniort
Editing: Nassim Gordji-Tehrani, Thomas Fernandez
Music: Douglas Cavanna, Xavier Cau
Main cast: Theo Christine, Finnegan Oldfield, Lisa Nyarko, Sofia Lasaffre, Jerome N