Simultaneously modeled as a take-off, parody, and tribute to the cheesy giant bug movies that hit movie screens in the 1950s (1954's "Them!," 1958's "Earth vs. the Spider," etc.), "Eight Legged Freaks" is a cursorily enjoyable sci-fi/comedy that gets its fun simply from seeing oversized spiders wreak havoc. As directed by Ellory Elkayem and co-written by Jesse Alexander, however, the film is not nearly as savvy a send-up of the genre as it thinks it is.
Just as in the most ludicrous of vintage bug attack movies, "Eight Legged Freaks" begins with a toxic waste spill in a local pond just outside the troubled coal-mining town of Prosperity, Arizona. Later scooping up crickets in the very same waters, a spider farmer (Leon Rippy) feeds the exposed insects to his pets and is amazed to watch them grow with each passing day. Before long, the hungry, extremely large spiders escape into the town, and it is up to the scared residents to fight back or become lunch meat.
The ragtag collection of unsuspecting heroes include Chris McCormack (David Arquette), the son of the now-deceased owner of the coal mines who has just returned to Prosperity after a ten-year absence; Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer), a single mother whom Chris has had eyes for as long as he can remember; Sam's childrenyoung spider aficionado Mike (Scott Terra) and rebel teenager Ashley (Scarlett Johansson); and a thought-to-be-crazy radio disc jockey (Doug E. Doug) who drones on day and night about possible alien conspiracies.
"Eight Legged Freaks" is as silly and ridiculous as it sounds, and the movie knows it. Unfortunately, its obvious perceptiveness has not translated into a tightly written or particularly clever screenplay. Viewed as a comedy, the picture is only sporadically funny, and foolishly passes up distinct chances at incendiary humor, such as the extended finale set in a shopping mall. Instead of slyly poking fun at the movies from which inspired this one, director Ellory Elkayem is often merely happy to have various scenes from such pictures pop up on televisions in the background of shots. Such a missed opportunity represents a level of laziness on the part of the makers.
Likewise, the characters are stock figures who have all been given flimsy subplots not worth the time and energy it takes to wade through them before the action picks up. The major human star is, no doubt, David Arquette (2001's "3000 Miles to Graceland
"), who had more to work with in the "Scream
" series, which also poked fun at a genre. Arquette does nothing of interest in this bland role. As his potential love interest and the strong-willed heroine, Kari Wuhrer (1998's "Kissing a Fool") is the exact opposite, taking her part seriously without forgetting what kind of movie she has been placed in.
Scarlett Johansson, possessing such talent in 2001's "Ghost World
" and "The Man Who Wasn't There
," is relegated to the thoroughly disposable supporting role of Sam's daughter, Ashley. In fact, aside from a wickedly funny turn by Eileen Ryan (2001's "I Am Sam
"), as Chris' tell-it-like-it-is, chain-smoking aunt, none of the actors or characters really jump to life the way they should. In turn, the exposition scenes are so uninteresting that it noticeably slows the pacing down.
The failed attempts at character-building end once the spiders are let loose on the town, disposing of human prey and a large selection of animals (dogs, cats, and ostriches refreshingly bite the dust at a rapid rate). The first-rate, if slightly stylized, visual effects are meant to evoke the technical crassness of the film's older counterparts, but they are still pretty impressive. The action sequences, particularly a thrilling motorbike chase and another involving a Muzak rendition of "Strangers in the Night" that plays in one of the shopping mall stores as a spider hiding in a tent stalks its prey, are carried out with a joyous vigor that cannot be denied.
As far as modern-day "Earth Invasion" movies go, "Eight Legged Freaks" is a step above 1996's "Independence Day" and 1997's "Starship Troopers." Still, one can't help but imagine how much more original and energized it might have been had Joe Dante (1984's "Gremlins") or Tim Burton (1999's "Sleepy Hollow
") been at the helm. Entertaining to a point but lacking the imagination required for the proceedings to stick in your mind once the end credits have rolled, "Eight Legged Freaks" is, perhaps, as good as trashy mediocrity gets. But it could have been so much more.
©2002 by Dustin Putman