Screams are one thing. It’s another thing entirely to feel an audience squirm in their seats — legs twisting, arms tensing, bodies slowly contorting. The new French thriller Vermin, showing at Venice as part of the Critics’ Week sidebar, is either irresistible or repulsive depending on your point of view, and maybe a bit of both. It’s a movie about huge, deadly spiders invading a French housing project. Some of the spiders, I gather, are played by real spiders, and some have been achieved via effects. Either way, they look like real spiders. They feel like real spiders. There’s personality in their movements; they don’t come across as monsters so much as just another species struggling to survive in a hostile and foreign place. It’s a nifty idea, but it works mainly because director Sébastien Vaniček, making his feature debut, understands how to shoot and cut suspense and terror. I’m not a big arachnophobe, but the first time an army of tiny spider-babies crawled up one character’s arm, my body immediately bent into a shape it has never taken before or since.
Vermin isn’t a standard-issue horror film, though it starts like one. Somewhere in a desert, a group of Arab men travel to a desolate, rocky area and start lifting rocks, looking for the creatures. They finally find an enormous hole, and try to smoke the spiders out. One of them is immediately bitten on the neck and starts screaming and spiraling in pain; he’s soon put out of his misery by a swift machete blow. The incredibly venomous spider they capture is then sold under-the-counter in a shop in France to Kaleb (Théo Christine), an enterprising young hustler who makes money selling black market items (mainly sneakers) to the residents of his housing development. Kaleb has also been building a reptilarium in his apartment, much to his older sister’s chagrin. He’s gentle with his creatures, and talks to them; it’s been a dream of his since he was a child to have a small zoo filled with frogs and iguanas and snakes and other creepy crawly things.
Kaleb names his new spider Rihanna, then gives her a temporary home in a shoebox that happens to have a hole in it. As might be expected, Rihanna gets out. Rihanna lays eggs. Rihanna lays lots of eggs. By the time one of the neighbors squashes Rihanna, it’s too late. These eggs hatch and grow to unspeakable sizes in a matter of hours. Pretty soon the already-desperate residents are dropping dead, and massive cocoons and cobwebs are showing up all over the place. Kaleb, his sister, and their pals — among whom is Kaleb’s oldest, estranged friend Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield), who happens to also be a reptile and insect aficionado — have to make their way out of their dark, run-down building.
Vermin wants to do more than just scare us out of our wits, even though it does that part quite well. The charged setting of the banlieu invites a political reading of what’s happening. This is a place where the power is often out, where lights aren’t fixed, where the elevator never works, and where mysterious goo on a stair or railing isn’t regarded as a particularly ominous sign. The film resists more ambitious themes or more specific symbolism, however. Vaniček has said that he sees the spiders as a metaphor for the residents of the housing project — unwanted, misunderstood, and feared. One of the programmers introducing the film at Venice Critics’ Week stated that the whole thing was about encroaching, all-consuming neo-capitalism.
I must admit that these connections feel tenuous to me, because the film itself gives very few hints at them; the spiders start biting people before they even have a chance to be misunderstood, and, aside from the fact that Rihanna arrives via a pair of fancy sneakers, there’s little here in the way of neo-capitalist allegory. Besides, for a picture that wants to be a metaphor for these downtrodden souls, it’s maybe a bit too cavalier about the kills at first, which in turn also makes a later death — one which sends the characters spinning into an extended montage of grief — feel a little asymmetric emotionally.
I’m not sure Vermin works as quite the refined thesis its creators wish it to be, though perhaps this works to the movie’s advantage as a genre piece; it never really slows down to work a theme. What comes through are Vaniček’s expert orchestration of suspense, and the cast’s ability to make their characters’ fears feel genuine. Indeed, the immediacy of their desperation might be the most effective political aspect of Vermin. A general sense of hopelessness gathers over the picture as the police begin to get involved. At first, the cops are neglectful and careless, then they’re violent. You do get a sense of how spiritually abandoned these places are, of the profound depth of institutional failure. It’s enough to make the characters wonder if maybe they were better off with the spiders.
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