Eight Legged Freaks

There’s always room for a movie about giant mutant spiders. Personally, I don’t think there have been nearly enough of them lately, so it’s good that Eight Legged Freaks fills the gap. There is, of course, a definite place for confusing foreign films and sensitive indie dramas about troubled young lesbians at a boarding school — I enjoy those also — but sometimes you just want to watch a spider eat a fucking car, y’know? The movie is as dumb as dog hair — what am I saying, of course it’s dumb, it’s about giant mutant spiders — but the dumber this kind of movie is, the better I like it. This isn’t a film for those who shuddered at the morose beauty of Road to Perdition. This is a film for those who grew up on monster movies, especially the big monsters that stomped towns and cities flat. I love all those movies, so I say, bring on the giant mutant spiders.

Among modern monster movies, Eight Legged Freaks lacks the simplicity of Tremors, the tension of the better dino sequences in Jurassic Park, and the gung-ho spirit of Starship Troopers. But it’ll do. I didn’t enjoy the hell out of it, as I did the above three, but once the spiders — including jumper spiders, trapdoor spiders, and tarantulas — start crawling all over the ironically named Prosperity, Arizona, it stays reasonably amusing. It isn’t particularly scary; the creepiest thing on the screen is the uncredited Tom Noonan (Manhunter) as a weirdo who keeps a large “spider farm” and feeds his pets contaminated bugs that make them huge (why don’t the infected spiders turn into nerdy high-school photographers? Ah, never mind).

As usual, nerdy little kid Mike (Scott Terra, looking like an American Harry Potter) is the only one who knows what’s going on; as usual, nobody believes him, especially not his busy divorced mom Sam (Kari Wuhrer), the town sheriff, or his disdainful older sister Ashley (Scarlett Johansson, a long way from Ghost World). One sympathetic ear is Chris (David Arquette, abandoning his usual goofball shtick for something closer to his surly turn in Roadracers), who left town ten years ago and has come home looking for work. He finds only his chain-smoking aunt (Eileen Ryan), a bunch of people squabbling over his late dad’s mines, and big spiders.

ELF feels a little padded out even to reach its scrawny 99-minute weight. We spend a bit too much time on the greedy local fatcat (Leon Rippy, wearing a ponytail — that’s how you know he’s bad, I guess) who’s trying to get everyone to sell out their interests in town; there’s a few too many scenes that are meant to be funny (the people who make this sort of film should realize we know how dumb it is — they really don’t need to keep reminding us that they know, too). I got tired fairly quickly of listening to Doug E. Doug as a conspiracy-theorist DJ (“You believe in aliens,” says Arquette to the skeptical-of-giant-spiders DJ in one of the film’s rare funny lines, “but this you have a problem with”).

When the spiders skitter into view, though, all is forgiven. Spiders leaping to take down speeding dirt-bikers, spiders coating a fuel truck, spiders popping out of hiding places to slurp up unsuspecting household pets — I could watch this stuff all day. A few moments shook a hearty laugh out of me, including a bit of business with a mounted deer head and a witty sight gag involving a tent. Best of all are the less competent spiders — the ones who get squished by cars, squeaking in outrage, or get stunned and shake their heads before proceeding to the next victim. The spider stuff is expertly done, and since that’s what we go to Eight Legged Freaks to see, I can’t really hold its faults against it. The movie could’ve been funnier and not played so clownishly during the non-spider scenes, but this is still the best giant-spider movie I’ve seen in quite some time.

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