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Sunday 28 July 2002

Eight Legged Freaks

Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Written by Jesse Alexander, Ellory Elkayem, and Randy Kornfield (story)
Starring David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Doug E. Doug

Reviewed by Lawrence Person

If you're looking for a breakthrough science fiction film exploring cutting edge technological topics with a rigorous hard-science underpinning, this isn't it. (Really, the name alone should have told you that much.) On the other hand, if you're looking for a funny and loving homage to the "giant critter" B-movies of the 1950s, Eight Legged Freaks fits the bill.

First, let's get the obvious scientific impossibilities out of the way. Giant spiders (and pretty much any other land-dwelling invertebrate pumped up several times its normal size) are a physical impossibility due to our old friend, the square-cube law. In short: Say you double a spider's size. If you double the length and the width, the area of a cross-section of the spider's leg has increased by the square (four times), while the volume and weight of the spider's body has increased by the cube — eight-fold. As a consequence, a giant spider or giant insect would collapse under its own weight. This principle explains why large animals, like elephants, have fat legs, while insects have relatively slender ones. (Ed Bryant made much of the absence of lungs in insects, and what might happen were the situation different, in "giANTS".) Not only would a spider 20 times its regular size be crushed under its own weight, it would hardly be able to run up walls and ceilings as they do in this film. Second, in the wild, different types of spiders don't cooperate with each other; it's far more likely that they'd be busy eating each other rather than waiting patiently in the parking lot for the tarantula to bust a hole in the mall's steel doors. Third, you have the familiar "the guy outracing the fireball" trick, albeit on a motorbike; see Roger Ebert's rant on this particular issue. Finally, although I haven't fully plumbed the depths of arachnid research literature to confirm this point, I'm reasonably confident that spiders, of whatever size, don't chortle.

Despite the square-cube law, giant spider films have a long and (occasionally) noble lineage. Perhaps the first (and almost certainly best) movie to feature them was the original King Kong. A scene where crewmembers are eaten by giant spiders (animated in stop motion, like the rest of the film, by the great Willis O'Brien) was so horrific in test screenings that it was excised from the released film and presumed lost, making it perhaps the second most famous lost footage in history behind the missing reel of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. The first film where a giant spider took a staring role was Tarantula, the first and probably best knock-off of giant ant movie Them! (In one of many nods Eight Legged Freaks makes to its predecessors, Them! plays on TV in the background of one scene.) After that, the record ranges from the mediocre (Earth vs. The Spider) to the just plain awful (The Giant Spider Invasion). However, this is a banner year for giant spider films, with The Two Towers and Shelob on tap for December.

Which brings us to Eight Legged Freaks. Eight Legged Freaks isn't a B-movie trying to pretend it's an A-movie, it's a B-movie that knows it's a B-movie, embraces its B-moviehood, then wraps it in a sticky cocoon and places it over its mantelpiece as a badge of honor. It's an unabashed and unapologetic comic horror film, though one that never crosses the line between homage and parody, and is the best in this vein since Tremors.

Like so many of its predecessors, the movie takes place in a desert town, in this case the ironically named Prosperity, Arizona, where the local mine is a month from bankruptcy and entertainment comes in the form of the paranoid conspiracy theories and alien-obsessed rantings of local radio DJ Harlan (Doug E. Doug, who also provides the film's Criswell-esque narrative frame). A truck swerves to avoid running over a rabbit (a clever nod to that silliest of giant critter films, Night of the Lepus), sending a barrel of toxic waste flying into a local pond. The local spider-raising recluse is soon fishing crickets out of that same pond to feed to his precious pets, which grow unusually (but not yet terrifyingly) large in a week's time. He explains their growth spurt to young arachnid enthusiast Mike Parker (Scott Terra), who leaves just before a loose nasty bites his mentor, who conveniently sets all his charges free in his thrashing death throes. All this is handled with an almost playful economy of effort, setting up the bug backstory and explaining the different types (tarantulas, jumping spiders, trapdoor spiders, and orb weavers, whose males cocoon their prey alive for the much-larger female's later consumption), in well under 10 minutes.

The other human characters are introduced with equal efficiency. Chris McCormack (David Arquette) is the prodigal son of the recently deceased mine owner, coming back to stay with his chain-smoking Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) while attempting to revive the mine's failing fortunes. Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) is the town Sheriff, mother of Mike and Ashley (Scarlett Johansson), and someone who (naturally) had a previous romantic interest with Chris. She discovers the barrel with her rotund, befuddled deputy, Pete (Rick Overton). We meet the town's slimy Mayor (Leon Rippy), the mastermind (for very small values of mind) behind such get-rich-quick schemes as the local mall and his ostrich farm, as well as his dirt-bike riding son Bret (Matt Czuchry), who's hot for Ashley, and a few more characters, most of whom are obvious redshirts destined for a fate as Purina Spider Chow.

Mike finds the recluse's shack abandoned and covered with webs, with no spiders in sight but a foot-long segment of exoskeleton and tracks leading to a mine opening. Naturally, neither Chris nor his mother believes him about the spiders ("they never believe the kid," he wryly observes). Soon the spiders start dining (mostly off-screen) on the local fauna. There's a wonderfully wacky scene with Deputy Pete's cat chasing one of the spiders inside a drywall that plays like a Daffy Duck cartoon, with each of the animals leaving their impressions in the wall's plaster as they battle up the inside of his living room.

The spiders, of course, are the stars of the show, and they deliver big-time. Ed Wood would have killed for these special effects (or at least given up an angora sweater or two). The first extended chase sequence with the spiders occurs when a bunch of the jumpers show up to brunch on Bret's dirt-bike riding friends. Though a touch less convincing than the tarantula or the orb weavers, all have the imposing screen presence of real-life creatures, and the scenes of the dirt bikers racing to escape them is pretty exhilarating. This is also the first time we hear the spider's oddly engaging, weird, high-pitched, coughing chortle as they jump after the bikers with positive glee. (When you have dozens of them doing the same thing later in the film, it becomes apparent that this is an homage to Gremlins.) The occasional lapses are due more to unwise choices in shot composition (see below) than the marvelous CGI work. Bret escapes into the mines, but not before his pursuers collide (rather impressively) with a tank truck, which subsequently explodes and knocks out the phone lines. Alas, this scene also offers the film's most troubling continuity problem: the spiders shake off the fireball and keep coming, but later fire is the precise thing that does them in. (Since we're told early on there's methane in the mine, this is about as big a spoiler as telling you that, in Titanic, the ship sinks.) Maybe it just wasn't hot enough...

Elsewhere things are heating up nicely. Trapdoor spiders seem to have a taste for ostrich meat that exceeds that of the American public, Aunt Gladys goes looking for her dog in the hole in her basement and ends up with a new silk coat, and one of the now very large orb weavers ambles up to Ashley's bedroom to make her acquaintance. After Sam shotguns this unwelcome suitor (a mostly cocooned Chris mumbles a muffled "thank you"), the race is on. Sam, Mike, Ashley, Chris and Pete fend off a pack (can you say "spider skeet"?), then ride the squad car down to the local radio station to get the word out. Naturally, Harlan thinks the spiders are aliens. Naturally, knowing Harlan, the town doesn't believe any of it until they start getting munched. Just before a convincing giant tarantula upends Harlan's trailer, Sam tells the townspeople to gather at the mall (a big nod to Dawn of the Dead here), where the surviving townsmen race to make their final stand.

The last 30 minutes are where the CGI wizards make the most of the premise, with hordes of giant spiders scurrying menacingly across the doomed town after sunset. These scenes have an impressive, nightmarish intensity as the all-too-believable spiders take down screaming citizens left and right. The scenes in the mall itself aren't quite as tense, mainly because the director has let the CGI guys go so far overboard that the spider scenes don't sync up with the character's reactions. It looks as though he told the actors to pretend there were a dozen giant spiders on the walls, floor and ceiling in front of them, and in post-production the CGI guys said "Hey, forget a dozen! We've got a million dollars left over in the budget, so lets make it 50 spiders!" Faced with such odds, slow retreat punctuated with occasional fusillades just doesn't make any sense. There's a similar flaw early on, when a veritable hoard of (still small) spiders is seen scampering over the walls and ceiling within mere seconds of the recluse's collapse, far too quick for them to be out and scurrying about in such numbers. Still, even when the action gets overblown, the comic touches and sight gags stay dead on, as when an orb weaver gleefully tries to follow Chris's slide down a wire only to encounter the edge of an air conditioning duct, or when the barber carefully creeps out of his hiding place in the sporting goods store, only to have a pup tent creep up equally slowly behind himů

The best thing Eight Legged Freaks has going for it (besides the impressive CGI) is snappy direction. Director Ellory Elkayem has a superb sense of pacing and comic timing, and the film consistently amuses. Neither the action nor the pace ever flag, and the necessary subplots (Sam and Chris' romance, the mine's elusive motherlode) are handled with such perfunctory dispatch (maybe 3 minutes each over the course of the movie) that they never drag the film away from its main theme: more spiders!

The acting would be mediocre in a regular movie, but actually comes in fairly close to the top for a B-movie. David Arquette does an adequate job playing Chris as written (something of a milquetoast), but he doesn't have the commanding screen presence needed to carry a movie as a lead; he's no John Agar, though thankfully he's also no Keanu Reeves. Kari Wuhrer does a good job in an underwritten part, but she probably should have turned the spunk up a notch or two; Sam would have been a perfect role for Beverly Garland in her prime. Rick Overton misses the mark with Pete's "doofus redeemed" story arc. He starts out 95% befuddled and ends up, well, 90% befuddled, when he probably should have been around 50%. Despite his heroic last stand in the mall while the others escape to (relative) safety, his face never loses its open-mouthed, dazed-and-confused expression, making Barney Fife seem like a tower of manly determination in comparison. Eileen Ryan's Aunt Gladys is a bit too stereotypical, and her final line strikes a flat note. Doug E. Doug does a very good job with Harlan, making his conspiracy and alien rants (even the ones about anal probes) funny but not buffoonish; he comes across as a Chris Rock who can actually act. However, the real star here (besides the spiders) is Scott Terra, who turns in an impressively intelligent and understated performance. When Mike's mother asks about the giant spider part that Chris rushes over from Gladys' basement, Terra's dry "that's my paranoid media-induced delusion" reply is absolutely pitch perfect. If George Lucas had waited five years to make The Phantom Menace, Terra would have made the perfect Anakin Skywalker.

If there's a knock against Eight Legged Freaks, it's that it doesn't quite measure up to its most successful predecessor, Tremors, in the comedic monster movie sweepstakes. Eight Legged Freaks isn't quite as sharply acted or written, and there's no line in it the equal of "Guess you broke into the wrong God damn rec room!" (Nor does it reach the inspired, gruesome heights of Dead Alive or Evil Dead 2; in fact, virtually none of the actual devouring happens onscreen, probably to preserve the film's PG-13 rating.) However, it also struggles under constraints Tremors was free from, namely the fact that spiders are dumb. In Tremors, both the alien worms and the townspeople get smarter as the movie goes on; here, having the spiders get smarter wouldn't have made much sense. Given the premise, the screenwriters crafted a script that was light, clever, and reasonably gripping. It's also a movie that plays firmly by its own rules; there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor here, but that tongue never sticks out and wags at the audience.

No one is going to mistake Eight Legged Freaks for Citizen Kane, but it succeeds in what it sets out to do with wit and panache, which, given Hollywood, is no small achievement. Fans of B-movies will find it well worth their time to spend a summer afternoon with Eight Legged Freaks.

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

Lawrence Person and the editor thank Mark Leeper, S. Hamm, and Jan Vanek jr. for correcting and clarifying the principle of the 'square-cube law' as expressed in the initial post of this review.

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