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John’s Horror Corner: The Swarm (2020; aka, La Nuee), a mostly subtle French eco-horror about killer insects.

September 10, 2021

MY CALL: Not to be confused with the killer bee movie The Swarm (1978), this movie isn’t what you think it is. And it’s probably not the horror movie you’re looking for. But what it is, is something I appreciate for its more subtle oddity. MORE MOVIES LIKE The Swarm: For more insectoid, arachnid and invertebrate horror try The Fly (1986), The Nest (1988), Slugs (1988), The Bay (2012), Arachnophobia (1990), Ticks (1993), Mosquito (1994) and Mimic (1997). The Mist (2007) and The Thing (1982) get a bit more tentacular but have some buggy appeal, and The Thaw (2009), Blue Monkey (1987) and Things (1989) use totally made up arthropod-like creatures. And of course, one shouldn’t overlook the sci-fi action Starship Troopers (1997).

A struggling widow and single mother of two, Virginie (Suliane Brahim; Black Spot) farms grasshoppers for high-protein livestock meal. The opening scenes are completely genre-innocuous such that you’d not expect this to be building to anything horrific. Even when Virginie’s son has a grasshopper crawling on his hand and stopping to patiently chew the wart off his finger, the boy just watches in amusement and it passes as quirky kid behavior.

After an accident leaves Virginie bleeding and unconscious in her rearing tent, she awakens to swat numerous grasshoppers from her bloody wound. Even stranger, her rearing house is now abuzz with active, freshly molted grasshoppers… and they’re hungry. So like a more grounded version of Larry and Julia’s toxic relationship in Hellraiser (1987), Virginie continues to give her swarm blood so they may thrive, reproduce, and bring her family financial security. But things seem under control; and it’s pigs’ blood she turns to when her own blood just isn’t enough. Or so, it slowly begins with pigs’ blood.

As Virginie pours more of her blood and soul into her work, it becomes her primary concern; an obsession. The development of her business results in what seems to be the diminishment of her conscience and motherhood.

I’ve come to realize that after 50 minutes there is still no reason to expect this to be a horror a movie if you somehow didn’t already know going into this. And while it’s not Oscar contender, I find myself not minding the long-delayed appearance of horror. Yes, there is eventually some gore, a good bit actually. But it’s heavily biased to the very end of the film, at which point it feels like a very different kind of movie entirely… though not in a bad way nor a good way. Just in an odd way. It’s like you were watching a sitcom or a drama, and all of a sudden everyone explodes into a gory bloody mess.

For most of its running time, director Just Philippot’s first feature film is to “killer insect” movies what Raw (2016) is to werewolf movies, only far more slow about it and eventually being more ostentatious about its true nature. The entirety of this movie could be the “opening scenes” of a killer insect movie. It takes a subtle approach to the genre, but then pushes that approach hard upon the viewers driving its point to a crescendo. To be fair, this mystique is wiped away in the final scenes, when this movie finally becomes exactly the movie we expected it to be (even if only briefly). Truly, I wish it just picked one style and stuck with it; subtle, or not. But this remains a solid off-the-beaten path film choice within the horror genre.

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