What’s not to like?

Watching Kiah Roache-Turner’s Sting for New Scientist

A bratty 12-year-old girl. A feckless stepfather who loses her trust and feels increasingly out of place in his own home. Oh, and a giant spider.

Kiah Roache-Turner, a relatively new director on the horror scene, understands that real originality has almost nothing to do with who and what you put in front of the screen. What matters how is you set those elements to dancing. Like 2023’s killer-doll hit M3gan, with which it shares a certain antic humour, Sting cares about its characters. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) hero-worships her absent father, and this is slowly driving her stepdad Ethan (Ryan Corr) up the wall, since he knows full well that Charlotte’s real dad lives only half an hour away “across the bridge”. (Sting is ostensibly set in Brooklyn, New York; actually it was shot in Sydney and aside from a couple of establishing shots its action takes place entirely within a brownstone apartment house, all drywall and ducts.)

Ethan’s a struggling comic book artist who finds himself borrowing (and spoiling) Charlotte’s own much livelier ideas. When Charlotte’s pet spider (it arrived in a meteor during an ice storm — never a good sign) grows to man-eating size and drags Ethan off through the air duct, Charlotte, plugged in to her earphones, her videogames and her anger, simply fails to notice. The scene tries to hit the sweet spot between horror and comedy that M3gan struck again and again, and if it doesn’t quite succeed, I think it may have less to do with the writing or direction as with the film’s basic premise, which is, when you come down to it, very thin.

Comparisons to the original Alien are inevitable, if only because of the spider’s break-neck growth rate and all those ducts. And as far as the special effects go, Sting the Spider stands up pretty well. Wisely, the film prefers glimpses, shadows and one or two very well-judged sight gags to full-on goo and muppeteering.

The house — a realistically over-stuffed gothic interior full of corners and cabinets — is the family in metaphor. The ducts connecting Charlotte’s bedroom to the sitting room of Helga, her senile grandmother (Noni Hazlehurst, having more fun than the rest of the cast put together), are the torturous lines of communication by which these good people struggle to maintain a sense of family. Sting favours suspense over surprise. We learn very early on that Charlotte’s fast-growing pet cannot bear the smell of mothballs and that Helga, wrapped in umpteen threadbare shawls, stinks of them. For a second we teeter on a fairytale in which an old woman and a young girl will save the “real” adult world.

True, nothing kills a good story faster than cleverness — but a few more touches of that sort wouldn’t have hurt. Instead we have an efficient, entertaining light-hearted script, very ably realised, and one and a half hours of light entertainment that, though not at all wasted, are not exactly filled to the brim, either.

Why, then, has Sting acquired global distribution and, even before its release, such glowing trade coverage?

Well, for one thing, it’s refreshing to see a movie that puts its characters through the wringer in psychologically believable ways. Charlotte saves Ethan from the spider. Ethan saves Charlotte. In the face of a Fate Worse Than Death (trust me on this), the pair learn to cooperate. A weak man gains strength, a lonely child learns there’s value in other people, a cowardly exterminator loses his head and a bitter landlady plummets down a lift shaft. What’s not to like? Storytelling this pure looks effortless, but if it was, films in general would be a lot better than they are.