Who doesn’t love a nice gory creature feature? Nobody I want to hang out with, that’s for sure. Unfortunately the sub-sub-genre has been waning over the years and where you used to not be able to swing a cat without hitting something along the lines of The Nest, Tremors, or Graveyard Shift you can now only find them in any real volume as bargain-bin schlock that ends up on the Sci-Fi channel. But occasionally weird, fun, goopy movies still slip through the cracks and stuff like The Convent, Slither, and Black Sheep get released. That brings us to Stung, a film by first-time feature filmmaker Benni Diez and first-time screenwriter Adam Aresty.
Our protagonists are Julia (Jessica Cook), the owner of a catering company she inherited from her recently deceased father, and Paul (Matt O’Leary), a doofy stoner-type who also happens to be Julia’s sole employee. Our dynamic duo is catering an outdoor dinner party held by the widow of a wealthy pharmaceutical mogul, this is an event that her father catered for years past and she really needs the gig to keep her company afloat.
We meet the half-senile widow Mrs. Perch (Eve Slater), her weird hunchback son Sydney (Clifton Collins Jr.), and their live-in maid Flora (Cecillia Pillado.) The event kicks into full swing, but we keep focusing on a weird hole in the ground not far from where the party is being held. After what feels like an excessive surplus of character building, wasps about the size of hummingbirds swarm out of the hole and things go nuts. Kinda.
I get the harsh realities of doing an effects-heavy creature feature on a budget so I really don’t want to lean on this movie too hard for lackluster deaths, but this is the pivotal scene of the movie so the attack should be a splatterfest, but instead it’s people just kind of milling around in a slightly spooked way as CG wasps hang around. Admittedly the best gore gag in the entire movie happens in this scene when the first actually giant wasp emerges from inside a womans’ body and grips its way out, the ruin of her head still hanging off its exoskeleton. I still feel like more of the budget should’ve gone toward gore gags for this scene.
From here our heroes, Sydney and his mother, and the town’s mayor (Lance Henriksen) flee into the house to hide. In a matter of minutes one person hatches another wasp, which kills another person, and yet another reveals they’ve been stung and tries to hide it. There’s still a lot of movie left and it feels like we’re already into the third act. More troubling is the fact that there’s not much left to do. The movie doesn’t spin off into some odd new angle, our heroes hide in the house until Paul decides to go outside and find his keys and then more people die and they go outside.
The biggest problem with the special effects work of Stung is that the lackluster party massacre is about the most spectacular scene in the movie, effects-wise. We still get some decent kills and some bloody bits, but the best is behind us as we go into the second half of the second act. The characters just kind of mill around until it’s time to head toward the finale and there just isn’t a whole lot of substance causing the middle to sag and lose all momentum.
The actual physical effects look wonderful and I can’t fault a single one of them, but unfortunately I can’t say the same about the CG which looks very plastic and digitized. This is a shame, since the cinematography by Stephan Burchardt is delightful and makes everything look vivid and enticing. The color red is used rather prominently, giving the film a real Hammer Horror vibe that serves it well. I will admit there’s a tendency for scenes to appear smoky which I found mildly annoying but I’m still going to give a major thumbs up to the camera crew on this one.
The character work is all pretty flat. Julia’s sad that her father is dead and wants her business to succeed, Paul’s a loser who wants Julia to acknowledge him more and wishes she wouldn’t treat him like an employee, the mayor is drunk and surly, Syndey’s a dick, etc. This would be forgivable if the movie didn’t devote so much time to letting us get to know these characters, the extra-long introduction just shines a spotlight on how underdeveloped everyone is and that’s extremely detrimental to the narrative.
Matt O’Leary is a capable leading man and it’s not fair to blame the odious qualities of his character on him, but Paul is pretty awful. He obviously carries a torch for Julia and resents her for not loving him for sticking with her in a tough time, which is a pretty shitty outlook. That the movie sets Paul up to be a complete loser and then turns him into an action hero at the first sign of danger feels like a wish fulfillment character beat but I’m not going to presume to know what the writer was going for there. Still, O’Leary plays the role with aplomb and I can’t fault any part of his performance.
Julia isn’t as bad as Paul, largely because she (like most of the characters) isn’t nearly as developed as he is. But Jessica Cook is a more dynamic actor than Matt O’Leary and her sudden action hero beats feel a lot more triumphant than his do. The characters work much better as a pair, a protagonist power couple of sorts, but I feel like Julia’s the more likeable character.
Sydney is pretty much a stock character, the oily weirdo that nobody likes. I love Clifton Collins Jr. and it pleases me every time he gets work, but this character was really not in his wheelhouse. Collins is a very talented actor but he works better on the “larger than life” end of the spectrum with others of his stripe like Michael Pena, Randy Quaid, Vinnie Jones, Ron Perlman, or Clancy Brown. He plays exciting weirdos, not creepy weirdos. Sydney is a character more for a Brad Dourif or Jeffrey Combs-type character actor maybe Burn Gorman or Cillian Murphy. To be quite honest, I questioned why he’d been hired for the role at all until the third act when something happens that makes Syndney more interesting. But even the act three reveal feels like a waste of Collins’ talent and I feel bad for saying this, but I felt very underwhelmed by his performance.
Lance Henriksen almost seems to be coasting by on the fact that he’s Lance Henriksen here. I’m certain that the mayor’s demeanor of a bored man who barely seems to care about what’s going on as he sighs heavily and sips from his drink was probably written into the script, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a commentary (accidentally or not) on how Henriksen feels about all the low-budget horror movies he’s been in over the last couple decades. He’s charming and a bit funny when he’s given a chance but the character just feels like the most overt (and lazy) acknowledgment that the filmmakers are making an Aliens homage.
And this movie is definitely an Aliens homage, though there’s definitely loving tributes to a lot of other justifiably revered horror movies too. A third-act use of a gas-powered hedge trimmer can’t help but feel like a nod to Evil Dead 2 and the labels for the growth hormone which supposedly caused the giant wasps bear the name Trioxin, a reference to Return of the Living Dead.
IFC Midnight has come to be known by me as the distributor of movies that I want to like more than I actually do and it’s reached a point where the sight of their logo on the front of a movie just fills me with a note of disappointment right off the bat. I appreciate their dedication to putting out indie horror and in no way want them to stop doing it, but just about every movie of theirs I’ve seen has come infuriatingly close to being something I love only to ultimately fail. Stung is one-such movie for me, it nicely homages movies I love and it’s got a killer premise, but like so many other IFC Midnight releases it seems to want to coast on good ideas and nostalgia alone and as such comes out half-baked. A brilliant film that just needed a bit more tooling around to become what it could’ve been.
I like Stung, I like it a lot, but I don’t love it and that bums me out. That said, I’m definitely interested in following Diez and Aresty from here as they seem like rising talents in the industry and I think with a little refinement they could be the next big things. And if there is a Stung 2, I’m totally going to see that too.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars