Spiders can be scary, but it’s our reaction to them that’s traumatic.

The jolt of panic you feel when a tickle just hits wrong is a hard-wired evolutionary response that’s been explored in horror for decades. Humans developed the “Holy shit, get it off me!” feeling as a protection against the pests we can’t always see. And while hobbyists claim arachnids are misunderstood — playing a critical role opposite insects (and, I don’t know, singing pigs named Wilbur?) — the bone-deep distaste we have for spiders has seen them cast as antagonists since the dawn of film. From “Tarantula!” and “Arachnophobia” to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” if something is on eight legs and in a movie, you know what comes next.

Directed by Sébastien Vaniček, and co-written by the French filmmaker and Florent Bernard, “Infested” premiered to buzzy acclaim at SXSW and screened again at The Overlook Film Festival. It doesn’t have the biggest or baddest spiders. And with the Spider-Verse still spinning, it may not even have the most spiders in a movie from recent memory. But what Vaniček’s intricately crafted creature feature lacks in the specialness of its specimen it makes up for with a captivating killing den that’s inhabited by multidimensional characters as melancholy as they are hilarious. Maybe you’ve experienced the side effects of spider cinema before, but you’ve never suffered them quite as thoroughly imagined as this French spin on a classic fear factor.

Intentional but subtle, Théo Christine deftly maneuvers his starring role as Kaleb: a kind-hearted animal lover whose apartment complex becomes ground zero for a dangerous enclosure breach. Kaleb is struggling to make ends meet, selling high-end sneakers out of a storage unit. He’s also battling a cold war with his sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko) who is intent on selling the inherited home she shares with her brother despite his pleas to keep it. When Kaleb “adopts” an illegal spider from one of his shoe suppliers — naming it Rihanna (iconic!) — the siblings’ feud is forced to the backburner. Locked in by police to protect the public, the brother and sister’s lethal new pet is now running loose around them.

INFESTED, (aka VERMINES), Theo Christine, 2023. © Tandem /Courtesy Everett Collection
Theo Christine in “Infested”Courtesy Everett Collection

Kaleb and Manon are just two of a few dozen rent-paying victims. With Barbados’ preeminent pop icon skittering through the vent system, it’s not long before bodies start piling up and Rihanna’s inevitable offspring starts to hatch. In addition to a smattering of neighbors and a memorable custodian, Kaleb and Manon are flanked by a well-constructed and believable group of friends. Kaleb’s best mate is a bike thief with a heart of gold, while Manon’s best friend is a blunt and witty arachnophobe. Their crackling chemistry bests any teen friend group in recent American cinema memory.

Kaleb, Manon, and the rest navigate their predicament with relatable panic and distinctive smarts. Each wannabe survivor considers their escape routes carefully and weighs their sometimes warring intentions with a unique emotion that resonates. Just as one would-be spider snack shuts down in the face of it all, another readies a tactical bite on behalf of their species. The spiders outnumber the people, but here each group is a team.

INFESTED, (aka VERMINES), Lisa Nyarko, 2023. © Tandem /Courtesy Everett Collection
Lisa Nyarko in “Infested”Courtesy Everett Collection

The manner of death experienced by those suckers unlucky enough to actually get bitten by Rihanna’s venomous progeny isn’t anything to write home about; if you’re looking for a revelatory representation of neurotoxic attacks, “Infested” isn’t it. But like a magician practicing an especially dicey sleight of hand, Vaniček makes a skin-crawling game out of obligating his audience to guess where the literal and metaphoric poison will bubble up next. Sometimes the spiders are exactly where you expect them to be, working your nerves in a familiar if involuntary pattern that feels like an itch. At other times, they’re not, torturing humans both on and off screen with the anxiety of waking an evil they had no plans to cross.

Vaniček signed with CAA in February and has since been tapped to lead an “Evil Dead” spin-off. He’s indirectly combining creative forces with Lee Cronin, who is the writer/director behind last year’s “Evil Dead Rise” and shares Vaniček’s taste for punk rock needle drops and gritty domestic settings; both appear in droves for “Infested.” There’s not much known about the future Sam Raimi-rooted project yet, but it’s a match made in heaven for anyone ready to see Deadites scaling the screen on new legs.

Grade: B+

“Infested” (“Vermines” in French) begins streaming on Shudder April 26, 2024.

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