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Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
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 children--young 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.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman