Eight Legged Freaks
Screenplay : Jesse Alexander & Ellory Elkayem (story by Ellory Elkayem & Randy Kornfield)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : David Arquette (Chris McCormack), Kari Wuhrer (Sheriff Sam Parker), Scott Terra (Mike Parker), Scarlett Johansson (Ashley Parker), Doug E. Doug (Harlan), Rick Overton (Deputy Pete), Leon Rippy (Wade), Matt Czuchry (Bret), Jay Arlen Jones (Leon), Eileen Ryan (Gladys), Riley Smith (Randy)
Eight Legged Freaks is a throwback horror-comedy that emulates the basic structure of a '50s-era creature-feature all in the good name of digital special effects. It's not really a spoof or a satire because it's not making fun of the genre and it doesn't have anything coherent to say about the strange cultural impulses (specifically Cold War rhetoric about the simultaneous fears of communists and nuclear annihilation) that fueled giant-bug movies such as Them! (1954). Rather, it is a genuine creature-feature that replaces the tone of brooding sci-fi seriousness with a deadpan postmodern jokiness about conspiracy theories and small-town eccentrics.
The story takes place in Prosperity, Arizona, a tiny desert community that, in opposition to what its name suggests, is on the verge of nonexistence due to economic hardship. One night, a trucker carrying radioactive waste spills a can into a small pond near town, which eventually contaminates the eight-legged residents of a nearby spider farm. The spiders proceed to grow to gigantic proportions (ranging in size from a dining room table to a small house), which is always an unnerving experience because it makes you realize just how monstrous tiny little insects really are. Brought to life with impressive digital special effects that are neither too cartoonish nor too realistic, the 200 ravaging eight-legged freaks of the title are quite a sight. At turns horrifying and funny, the spiders are monsters with a surprising amount of personality. Some are limber jumpers, while others are sluggish giants, while others excel at wrapping up their victims in web cocoons to bring back as a present for an even larger spider.
Unfortunately, more thought seems to have gone into the various kinds of spiders than the movie's characters. The lead character is Chris McCormack (David Arquette, in a not entirely disastrous bid for straight leading man status), a prodigal son of sorts who left town a decade ago and has returned just in time to be in the middle of the "arac attack." Chris left under mysterious circumstances, something to do with his relationship with Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer), who is now the town sheriff and is divorced with two children (Scott Terra and Scarlett Johansson).
Chris' recently deceased father owned a coal mine under the town, and the mayor, a greedy cad named Wade (Leon Rippy), wants to sell the mine (and all the other properties in town) because he has self-motivated plans. But, Chris stands in his way because his father believed the mine contained gold (of course, dark mines are also nice places for giant spiders to hang out ...). All of this is rather silly backstory, and in a way one can see how it is reminiscent of the kinds of stories that set the stage for the alien/monster invasions in '50s movies. Still, at times it makes for rather tedious going (until the spiders arrive, that is).
An exception to the generally bland characters is Doug E. Doug's Harlan, a conspiracy-theory nut who runs his own radio station out of a trailer and is much more willing to believe that the spiders are aliens than the result of toxic contaminants. The town's unwillingness to believe that the spiders are attacking is one of the movie's best jokes, particularly since they have been inundated with Harlan's conspiracy rhetoric about secret government agents and anal probes. When Sam gets on the radio and warns everyone about the giant arachnids, it's not surprising that they just roll their eyes. Another amusing character is Rick Overton's Deputy Pete, a good-natured soul whose wife leaves him after a spider eats their cat.
First-time director Ellory Elkay seems to have a good grasp of the material, and he plays successfully with the movie's horrific and comedic elements, sometimes combining the two. Watching giant spiders scuttle down the streets of a small town is a strangely funny sight, even if you recognize just how creepy it is. Most of the movie's best jokes are visual, while the script (cowritten by Jesse Alexander and Elkay) gives us mostly dull characters and bad verbal jokes (such as when Chris makes a David Bowie pun when he declares to Harlan that, if he wants to, he should just believe that these are spiders from Mars).
Overall, Eight Legged Freaks is probably a slight case of overkill. By the end, there are simply too many spiders and too many nice townspeople who have been sucked dry to care much how it all turns out. By then, Elkay is pretty much out of jokes and has to resort to a good ol' fashioned explosion, albeit one that causes a bit more damage than was planned. It certainly gets tiresome by the third reel, but for the most part, Eight Legged Freaks is an amusing retro ride for those who can find humor in the marauding antics of arachnids with gigantism.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick