Written by: Adam Aresty
Directed by: Benni Diez
Starring: Jessica Cook, Matt O'Leary, and Lance Henriksen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The ultimate buzzkill.
When I was recently sucked into watching Ticks on cable (because no one can resist the siren song of fucking Ticks) and found myself admiring the gooey, gross practical effects, a predictable refrain swirled in my head: “man, they just don’t make shit like this anymore.” It’s a claim that’s both predictable and a bit hyperbolic, of course, because the occasional quality creature feature sneaks through the swarm of junk that’s infested airwaves during the past decade. I think you’ve heard this rant from me, but it was with this in mind that I finally plucked Stung from my pile of catch-up titles: for all the grief I give this pitiful sub-genre, it only seems fair to check out one of the few that looks promising.
Simplicity is often a boon for this genre, and Stung doesn’t waste much time or effort in delivering exactly what you want from a giant bug movie. Its thin premise finds Julia (Jessica Cook) and Paul (Matt O’Leary) playfully bickering en route to a party they’ve been hired to cater. An annual gathering put on by a wealthy widow (Eve Slatner) and her weirdo son (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the festivities even command the attendance of the small-town mayor (Lance Henriksen). But before anyone can even get a good buzz going, a horde of mutated wasps descends on the mansion and eviscerates many of the partygoers. A handful of survivors manage to huddle inside the house, but it’s only temporary salvation since these bugs don’t fuck around.
For the most part, my optimism surrounding Stung was not misplaced. To be sure, it has a very low bar to clear, and it flutters right over it: all that’s really required is (mostly) practical, functional effects, characters that don’t grate, and a dash of sincerity. You may laugh at these meager requirements, but if you’ve been paying any kind of attention to this particular genre lately, you know just how it ignores these basic necessities (which any decent movie will provide out of common courtesy). It’s often not enough for these movies to be bad and stupid—they have to be willfully so, and wear it like a badge of honor. Most modern creature features are basically the film equivalent of the GOP.
But enough about those movies. Let’s talk about Stung, a movie that gets it and is eager to assure in a hurry: while your brain will certainly register some CGI embellishments here and there, most of the carnage features in-camera effects. The giant wasps are a particularly refreshing sight for sore eyes, and the blood they shed even more so. Director Benni Diez sequences a fine array of smashed eyeballs, decapitations, and (of course) exploding, puss-filled growths that prove the squib industry is alive and well. He remembers that these sort of movies should be gross, so even the smaller wasps can’t be extinguished without leaving behind a thick, oozing residue. Small grace notes like that set Stung apart—there’s just a tangible willingness to coax some genuine, playful squirms and wriggles in addition to laughs. It’s not just one big joke looking to be dismissed.
In fact, Diez and writer Adam Aresty resist the urge to go for broke with a big, outlandish splatterfest. Turning the film inward and having survivors crowd into the mansion’s cellar allows for some genuine suspense and gives the characters some room to breathe. This is an especially nice surprise for those of us who have seen Henriksen toil away in one-too-many of these things; here, his slightly detached turn fits since he’s playing a podunk mayor who’d rather be anywhere but at this party, and he’s certainly too old for this shit once the bugs arrive. It’s a small role, but his weariness grounds Stung just enough to keep it from feeling completely silly.
Cook and O’Leary do their part, too. While no one would really accuse Stung of being a character piece, but it does carve out some time for these two to become likable enough that we don’t need the giant wasps constantly crowding the screen. Their dynamic and arc are familiar enough, hewing to screwball conventions that dictate a playfully contentious relationship that eventually thaws amongst in the river of blood, puss, and goo they navigate together. It’s not a surprise that Cook’s Julia is more competent than her male counterpart, but it perhaps is surprising that the film actually acknowledges this. Even though Stung does degenerate into a familiar “goofball slacker gets his shit together and wins over the uptight girl,” it reserves plenty of time for Julia to kick ass and save Paul on more than one occasion.
In fact, she’s responsible for a rousing moment involving a chainsaw that caps the film’s most intriguing detour. Not content to simply be a giant bug movie, Stung plants some body horror seeds that flourish during this truly great, bizarre turn of events that takes advantage of the underappreciated Collins’s fantastic creeper vibes. Moments like this continue to reassure you that Diez and company are just as fed up with the junk that’s sullied this genre for far too long now. Seeing someone genuinely try—and mostly succeed—at crafting a humorous, entertaining, bug-infested gorefest without resorting to a glib, above-it-all approach is a relief.
If I’m being honest, Stung does wind up trying too hard, as it pushes for one gag too many that stretches beyond its means. With a proper effects budget, it’d be a killer climax; without such resources, it’s an unnecessary addition that leaves you wishing the film would have quit while it was ahead. This is a problem of misguided ambition, though, which is obviously preferable to having none at all. Besides, this superfluous sequence isn’t without its charms, as it does provide a nice, gruesome exclamation point. Stung ends on just the right note: with its tongue planted in its cheek, but not so deeply that you resent it. Sometimes, they still do make ‘em like they used to—or at least come close enough.
Stung is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory. Supplements include a 20-minute behind-the-scenes feature, a production blog, a theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with Diez, Aresty, and producer Benjamin Munz.
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