Since adding the ‘Midnight’ category to their programming, the Tribeca Film Festival has shown a strong affinity for creature features. Building off the success of last year’s North American premiere of ZOMBEAVERS, this year’s festival has added the world premiere of STUNG, a movie about giant wasps terrorizing a small town. Before discussing the film, let it be known that the decision to move towards horror programming at Tribeca is, in fact, a Good Thing. Unless you have a film that qualifies for the New York Asian Film Festival, or you want to premiere your movie at the still-small New York City Horror Film Festival, there aren’t a lot of great opportunities for festival horror films in New York. Tribeca aims to change that equation, and they’re slowly but surely getting it done.
That being said, STUNG operates as something of an exemplar for the Midnight category as a whole. Unlike the majority of Tribeca’s programming – which errs on the side of cross-cultural films and documentary storytelling – Tribeca’s Midnight category is often more populist than daring, favoring over-the-top gore and spectacle (think FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY) more than well-rounded storytelling. This is a model that STUNG perfectly fits.
With the recent death of her father, Julia (Jessica Cook) is now in charge of the family catering company. She and her sole employee, Paul (Matt O’Leary), pin their hopes of keeping the company together on the success of a birthday party for a local millionaire. So imagine their disappointment when their customers start exploding, victims of a mutated wasp whose sting causes five foot wasps to burst from people’s chests. Now Julia, Paul, Mayor Caruthers (Lance Henriksen) and the millionaire’s son (Clifton Collins, Jr.) must find a way to escape the property before the wasps turn it into their own giant hive.
Despite its low-budget concept and the slight gimmickry of its casting, STUNG is deadly serious in regards to its special effects. The film mixes together both practical effects – prosthetics and modeling – with impressive digital effects to create giant wasps with a real sense of scale. Many directors cannot resist a few knowing winks to the audience about their monsters; this is meant as an homage to the movies that inspired them but too often comes across as insincerity. The hardest thing to do in a creature feature is to play it straight, to trust that the monsters you’ve created are scary enough to work without commentary. STUNG is a film that trusts in its effects artists and sound designers. The monsters really and truly deliver.
So why isn’t STUNG a better movie? In a weird way, the quality of its effects get to the heart of a problem. STUNG provides us with perhaps the best technical achievements of the festival without realizing there is no real competitive advantage to building a better monster. A horror film can dump millions of dollars into their VFX budget or hire three interns to hold up puppets; either approach works, but a good monster is a basic requirement. It as if STUNG put all its money into building the perfect store but forgot to stock the shelves; good story and performances are still the things that will put your movie over the top, and STUNG is considerably weaker there.
Which isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. Matt O’Leary, who began his career in cult favorites BRICK and FRAILTY, is very quietly making a name for himself in genre pictures — see him in TIME LAPSE if that film ever finds a distributor. Meanwhile, both Henriksen and Collins, Jr. commit to what little material they’re given in the ways that only selfless veterans can. Watching Collins, Jr. have a frantic conversation with the growth in his neck is the all-too-brief highlight of the film, and Henriksen is embracing the angry old man portion of his career with aplomb. Realistic creatures and good actors is the foundation of a film, but it is also where STUNG stops. We do not care about any of the characters at the dinner party, nor are we ever really rooting for Paul and Julia to get together. They are reduced to bland stereotypes with, at best, a series of physical quirks to give them something resembling character.
While it is not an obvious touch point, the film that might serve as the best comparison point of STUNG is the 2010 science-fiction film SKYLINE. Like SKYLINE, STUNG is a movie that looks like a blockbuster without being one. Its success will guarantee the continued employment of both its filmmakers and crew, and clips of some of the best action sequences will find their way onto YouTube and generate countless impressions. And none of this is a bad thing; there is plenty of hard work and talent in STUNG, just not the kind that sticks together cohesively for ninety minutes.
STUNG is a really impressive series of action sequences, blown up into a very unimpressive ninety minutes. But I still can’t wait to see what this group does next.
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