Insects – big or small – have historically made for creepy horror movie antagonists. In the atomic horror era of the 1950s’, giant, radioactive-infused bugs (Them, Deadly Mantis, Tarantula) crawled onto drive-in screens. Next, 1970s eco-horror gave us ridiculous movies like Squirm, Frogs, and the actually not bad Phase IV. As the 1990s and 2000s rolled around, some filmmakers saw the potential in B-movie-inspired homages like Arachnophobia and Eight-Legged Freaks, while Guillermo del Toro played it straight with Mimic. Today, most horror fans probably associate killer insect movies with the SyFy Channel. But Netflix’s latest international release, The Swarm, looks pretty far removed from B-movie fare.
Outside of a small town, widowed Virginie struggles to provide for her teenage daughter, Laura, and young son, Gaston. After her husband’s death, Virginie switched from goat farming to breeding locusts as an alternate high-protein food source. But the locusts aren’t breeding enough to meet even the most basic demands. And many of them are dying. Not to mention Laura wants to move away from the farm for a more normal life. Though Virginie considers selling the farm she inadvertently discovers that blood triggers a spike in the locusts’ breeding and growth. Refusing to fail Virginie grows increasingly desperate to find more blood to feed her hungry locusts.
The Swarm Swaps B-Movie Bug Horror for Family Drama and Mounting Tension
In spite of its B-movie premise, The Swarm is far removed from 50s drive-in nostalgia or SyFy Channel schlock. Don’t go into this movie expecting mutant locusts or convoluted science alongside long-winded exposition. Instead, The Swarm plays out as more of a family drama laced with horror elements. Writer Franck Victor – based on Jérôme Genevray’s concept – crafts a lean story focused on Virginie’s obsession with succeeding with her farm and the toll it takes on the relationship with her children. Rather than distract audiences with silly pseudo-science, The Swarm opts for ambiguity in all aspects of storytelling. Whether it’s how Virginie lost her husband or the motives for her refusal to abandon the farm, Victor’s screenplay only hints at answers. As such, the story leaves audiences to draw their own conclusions, which has the effect of engaging you further with the story.
Rather than distract audiences with silly pseudo-science, The Swarm opts for ambiguity in all aspects of storytelling.
In regards to the movie’s horror elements, first-time director Just Philippot avoids conventional scares for atmosphere. No, The Swarm’s locusts don’t mutate – no eco-horror silliness here. Philippot proves to be effective at building tension relying on creepy buzzing and frenzied insect activity beneath feeding domes. It’s an effective approach that’s not reliant on VFX; it taps into what makes insects scary for many people. By the movie’s third act, Philippot unleashes small does of body horror as Virginie’s locusts expand their menu from goats to unfortunate wandering neighbours. Some of the climax’s shots of hundreds of locusts swarming over human bodies should make your skin crawl.
The Swarm Delivers Emotional Payoff With Character-Driving Story
Among The Swarm’s bigger surprises, French actress Suliane Brahim’s “Viriginie” is a much more ambiguous, complex character than what you would normally find in this sort of movie. Arguably, the only thing that’s absolutely certain about Virginie is her refusal to leave her farm. Whether it’s out of defiance as a single mother or some emotional connection remaining to her lost husband, The Swarm painstakingly illustrates Virginie’s growing obsession. While shots and sounds of frenzied locusts play in the background, Philippot spends more time on the destructive toll on her relationships and her own personal health. Ultimately, this focus gives The Swarm a huge emotional payoff in its final moments.
…The Swarm painstakingly illustrates Virginie’s growing obsession.
Alongside The Swarm’s direction and story, Brahim’s performance sells the movie’s concept. Even in the absence of an explicit motivation, Brahim’s mix of resolve and desperation makes it easy to believe that she would go to such lengths to succeed. Though North American audiences won’t recognize any of the supporting cast, all of the performances are excellent. Both Marie Narbonne (Laura) and Sofian Khammes, playing Virginie’s friend and potential lover, play well off of Brahim. In particular, Narbonne’s strong performance is key to The Swarm’s interpersonal conflicts. As always, audiences are better served by the French version with subtitles.
The Swarm Should Set Your Skin Crawling
Though it might be too methodically paced for some audiences, The Swarm offers a surprisingly lean, disturbing movie. If you’re expecting a B-movie similar to SyFy Channel productions, you’ll be disappointed. This French export focuses on its characters and emotional conflict, leaving its hungry locusts as largely part of the atmospheric background. But the horror elements absolutely deliver in part because they’re sparingly called on. The end result is a pretty chilling movie that blends emotional character-driven drama with bits of body horror.