BUFF, Film, Film Review

BUFF REVIEW: Infested (2023) dir. Sébastien Vaniček

Part of the 2024 Boston Underground Film Festival


We don’t have enough spider movies. For how widespread arachnophobia is, there is a relative dearth of actually watchable spider horror. Beginning as early as 1955’s Tarantula, the few spider films we get center jumbo-sized arachnids — the sort you’re very unlikely to ever encounter in your bathroom. The French language Infested, or to use its alternate title Vermin, generates trepidation by using the same real-life evolutionary ques that make the small eight-legged critters scary in the first place: surprise, speed, size. It also flirts with some bigger conceptual ideas to varying degrees of success.

The new film from up-and-coming horror director Sébastien Vaniček, tagged by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures for a future Evil Dead spin-off, falls somewhere between the creature feature and haunted house sub-genres. After a fatty prelude in Morocco, we meet Kaleb (Théo Christine), a home collector of bugs with a black market shoe (re)selling business. He lives with his sister and mourns their recently departed mother. He buys a unique and dying spider at an even shadier business and names her Rihanna. She eats her way through a shoebox, leaves a cocoon in the cold apartment, and begins laying eggs as if they require nothing more than oxygen to create. The spiderlings reproduce at the speed of electricity and each generation dwarfs the previous until eventually the black arachnids rival the size of a chunky Cocker Spaniel and infest the entire tightly-knit and predominantly minority apartment complex.

The marriage of creature feature and haunted house works quite well for spider-based horror in particular. A large part of why so many people are afraid of the little fuckers is because they can be sneak inside of any nook and cranny in the home. Once they swarm around in an unexpected shoe box, elsewhere one scares the shit out of a woman in the shower. (For the record, I am very much a spider lover. I have owned several tarantulas throughout my life and still technically own one even though it’s currently being housed elsewhere.) Their smallness, not their relative largeness, also contributes to their distressing appearance and by making them abnormally large, as they have been treated with consistency by horror filmmakers, part of this is lost. The spiders in Infested grow as the run-time advances, though they never depend on giant proportions to fright. In the final showdown, one of Kaleb’s friends opens a door that opens a dark pathway to the abyss of spider-hell; instead of an oversized mother spider (Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings style), a horde of darting smaller appear from the darkness come forward — and the spectacle scares better because of it. 

The spiders work through two separate higher-level ideas. Most basically, they push Kaleb and his sister/roommate out of their apartment, which, for the former but not the latter, serves as a reminder of motherly love. Kaleb must quickly emotionally process and work through his trauma or die because of his inability to move on. The sibling relationship grows stale in no time and always feels too many steps removed from the immediate bug-based threat. 

The more interesting idea at work with the spiders weaves together several threads relating to social justice. Not totally unlike the real-life governmental shutdowns experienced throughout the world with COVID-19, the French police mandate a lockdown of the apartment after the first mysterious death. And, like most contemporary French films involving cops (see: Les Indésirables), their cowardice in responding to emergencies ends up costing more lives than complete inaction. Also like Les Indésirables, there is something to the social dynamics of the apartment complex. Most of the central figures are racial and ethnic minorities and they find themselves “evicted” by the spiders. Some folks even mirror the eviction process by refusing to leave. One of the most prominent white characters accuses Kaleb of drug dealing; to his racist logic, that a Black man would sell shoes in a shoe box to another Black man is simply too fantastical. (Don’t worry, he dies in agony.) The several intersecting strings related to various aspects of social justice and living conditions satisfy and tie together with the spiders much more than any of the sibling drama even attempts to.

dir. Sébastien Vaniček
106 min.

Part of the 2024 Boston Underground Film Festival – stay tuned for the Hassle’s continuing coverage!

Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, & Middle Eastern film. 

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