2 out of 5 stars

There are few creatures more despised in cinema than the common house spider. In 1955, the disgust for the average house spider was blown out of all proportion in Tarantula, a film that posited the idea that a spider is not just a creepy little pest, but potentially humanity’s greatest enemy.

The creature feature’s popularity in the horror landscape, and the many permutations the genre allows, have given us a rich bounty of films that present everything from super-intelligent ants (1974’s Phase IV) to savage rabbits (1972’s Night of the Lepus). But spiders, rivalled only by sharks, have been the predominant mainstay in creature features, a few emerging each year from a seemingly ever-fertile egg sac.

In this grand tradition crawls forth Sting, a new arachnid horror that plays it safe. It relies on the age-old wisdom that people are generally scared of creepy crawlies, and even more terrified of very large creepy crawlies. Our unfortunate eponymous antagonist, Sting, arrives on the back of an asteroid that crashes through the window of a Brooklyn apartment block.

Yes, this is an extraterrestrial spider. No need to dwell on why it’s so large, vicious, and talented at impressions—that’s just the wonderfully silly B-movie way. It quickly establishes the facts and gets on with the fun.

Specifically, it’s a doll’s house that the asteroid crashes into. Writer-director Kiah Roache-Turner has fun with perspective here—Sting, who starts the film the size of a regular house spider, appears gigantic as he crawls over the miniature doll’s house furniture. Domination, perhaps, will soon be his.

It isn’t long before he’s up and about, making friends. Introverted tween, Charlotte (Alyla Browne), discovers the spider and quickly adopts it as a pet, naming it Sting after a sword in The Lord of the Rings.

Her world is gloomy. Her mum, Heather (Penelope Mitchell), is run ragged trying to pay bills while looking after newborn Liam, while stepfather Ethan (Ryan Corr) works as the dilapidated building’s maintenance man. Charlotte’s cruel great Aunt Gunter (Robyn Nevin) is the landlady who lives next door and doesn’t charge the family rent instead of payment to Ethan. It’s hardly a generous offer, given the state of the borderline-condemnable building.

Hard times have hit the family, particularly as Charlotte and Ethan’s true passion—writing and illustrating comic books—isn’t paying the bills. Charlotte’s absent birth father is a contentious issue, as is the slowly deteriorating health of her great-grandmother Helga (Noni Hazelhurst). All these subjects are touched upon, but little detail is given to flesh them out beyond broad, predictable strokes.

As the family struggles with dire financial straits, it’s evident that Sting is operating on a shoestring budget. However, this has never been an insurmountable obstacle for horror films. For many filmmakers in the genre, a low budget is an invitation to think creatively and use limitations to their advantage. The action of the film, therefore, doesn’t leave the confines of the apartment building, the set for which was constructed on a soundstage in Australia. The cast is noticeably small—outside of the family, there are just four speaking roles. A snowstorm is the reason given for why nobody leaves, and the state of the building itself serves as an explanation for why they have so few neighbours.

It still feels a little too sparse, though. Evil Dead Rise (2023) offered an excellent example of how a small cast and a single location can feel expansive and lived-in. The world of Sting, however, feels half-drawn and lacks atmosphere. Its gloomy corridors feel bland rather than sinister, while the inhabitants are thinly sketched heroes or victims.

Perhaps the greatest weapons in a low-budget horror’s arsenal are the characters and actors. Writing a memorable character costs nothing, and as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) proved, some of the most memorable and distinctive characters in all of horror have been played by relative unknowns. It’s not a failing of the actors in Sting—they all do a decent job with what they’re given—but rather an inability on the part of Kiah Roache-Turner to make them even remotely interesting.

This wouldn’t be such a tiring issue if Roache-Turner hadn’t spent the best part of an hour focusing on the wearing family dynamics. All the stock parts are present, including Ethan’s anxieties about parenting, Charlotte’s hesitation about letting in a new stepfather, and Heather’s vague, baby-related stress. The fun of the first 10 minutes, which would work well as an enjoyable short film in isolation, is brought to a grinding halt by the po-faced family material.

The film’s quasi-classy sheen, typified by a gliding Steadicam and a shallow focus that struggles to establish its own identity, doesn’t help matters. It apes the standard look of “respectable” James Wan-style horror, but crucially lacks soul. It neither embraces its low-budget limitations nor finds a way to make them interesting. This is a film about a giant space spider—why, then, do we spend so much time in dimly lit rooms enduring cut-and-paste dialogue about family and responsibility? It’s baffling.

As if Roache-Turner suddenly remembered that creature features should be primarily fun, Jermaine Fowler is thrown in as the wisecracking exterminator, Frank. Not a single line that escapes his lips is even remotely funny (“He looks like he fucked a blender!” he exclaims regarding a mutilated pet parrot, leading to a stunned silence in the audience I watched the film with). However, Fowler is a good sport and has an effortless screen presence. While he’s around, the film finally seems to be heading in the right direction.

And when Roache-Turner remembers there’s a spider in the film, there are some enjoyably eerie details. The spider’s ability to mimic animal and human voices is put to good use, while its growing size offers some decent imagery—particularly when the shallow focus is finally utilised as Sting silently lowers himself from the ceiling behind a character’s back.

Whilst the creature itself is a digital creation in some shots, the legendary Weta Workshop built a large animatronic Sting puppet for the film. This work by the Academy Award-winning company should be a feather in the film’s cap. After all, there isn’t a horror fan alive today who hasn’t bemoaned the decline of practical effects in modern horror at some point.

Unfortunately, a major and increasingly common issue hinders Weta’s work: it’s nigh on impossible to discern a single image in the film’s second half. The ever-increasing sensor size in modern digital cameras has led to an epidemic of underlit images in films. The reasoning seems to be that if a camera can now see better in the dark, then on-set lighting is less important. As a result, we often see films with underwhelming and downright poor lighting, governed by the mistaken belief on the part of filmmakers that most issues can be fixed in post-production.

It’s sometimes the case that the less we see of a creature, the more menacing it becomes. Steven Spielberg needed little more than a camera panning through the ocean and a John Williams score to transform Jaws (1975) into a threatening presence. While the aforementioned The Blair Witch Project took this a step further, creating an entirely off-camera bogeyman (or woman).

Despite the team behind Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) creating the titular Sting, the character is wasted by murky lighting and choppy editing. A stronger key light could have improved the situation; a few more glimpses of Sting’s form would have helped him feel more vivid and tangible. As it stands, he mostly blends into a greyish-blue background, requiring a great deal of squinting to even discern him. Why audiences are so often penalised for wanting to see clear images is a mystery, but it seems we live in a remarkably fertile time for those who enjoy experiencing searing eye strain while watching a film.

It harms proceedings that when Roache-Turner finally builds momentum, we’re immediately led into the dull dead end of air ducts and boiler rooms. There’s room here for a bit of cat and mouse, but it’s so visually impenetrable that you can only tell who’s been caught in Sting’s web by the fact they’re no longer in the other scenes.

Up steps young Charlotte to defend her family from her ex-best arachnid friend, and here we get some Aliens-esque kitting up, only with Newt playing Ripley’s role. In a fun bit of invention, Charlotte realises that the chemical compound found in mothballs is poisonous to Sting, so off she sets to dissolve them in water before loading them into a super soaker.

Alyla Browne (Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga) is a likeable presence, effortlessly skirting around the pitfalls of the precocious child actor. She’s the heart of the film, bringing far more to the role than is written on the page. Her confidence on screen is impressive, making it all the more effective when we see her vulnerability; this child hero reverting to just another lost and frightened child. When the time comes for her to protect the family, you can’t help but root for her.

The parents are a different story altogether. Ethan’s personality seems to jump from one extreme to another with no clear explanation. Roche-Turner’s script rushes him from a warm-hearted protector in one scene to having essentially lost his mind in the next. It’s an unconvincing performance, further hampered by the script’s hasty decision to sideline him so that Charlotte can step up and become the protector.

Heather, meanwhile, was egregiously underwritten. For a film ostensibly about a family unit, it is inexplicable that a character who comprises one-third of it can be best described as ‘woman who carries a baby around the apartment’. By the time Sting has Heather and Ethan cocooned in his web, there’s little to keep us from hoping he’ll tuck in.

If Roache-Turner had better built the connection between Charlotte and Sting, some of this might be forgivable. Clearly, the film wants us to understand that the child and spider have some kind of emotional bond. The fact that she’s lonely is all the film can muster as to why, but there is nothing felt between her and her pet spider. She realises the deadly threat he poses, but there is no struggle with the guilt or sadness that might come with finding out your best mate tried to eat your dad.

The palpable lack of any tension, scares, and surprises sucks the life out of a hermetically sealed third act, which has a predictable “sting” that hints at a sequel. A rote and visually incomprehensible finale leaves the strange effect of walking out of a particularly inconsequential dream: you know you’ve just seen some shapes and heard some sounds, but the more you try to grasp them, the vaguer they become until they’re all just a darkening mush.

A creature feature’s success doesn’t hinge on perfection. Audiences often celebrate the missteps and nonsense of their favourite films, and each flaw in Sting feels relatively small on its own. But like the angry spider from space, the flaws grow in size and multiply, leaving no room for anything but disappointment at all the missed opportunities. Sting lacks the giddy highs and hysterical lows of the typical creature feature, but it doesn’t manage to carve out a niche for itself on the quieter end of the spectrum either. Where there should be slow-burning tension, there’s emptiness. Where there should be creeping dread, there’s only tedium. Sting is a film in stasis, smothered by a web of its own making.


frame rated divider studiocanal

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Kiah Roache-Turner.
starring: Ryan Corr, Alyla Browne, Penelope Mitchell, Robyn Nevin, Noni Hazelhurst, Silvia Colloca, Danny Kim & Jermaine Fowler.