**½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scarlett Johansson, Scott Terra
screenplay by Jesse Alexander & Ellory Elkayem
directed by Ellory Elkayem
by Walter Chaw Ellory Elkayem's Eight Legged Freaks [sic] is less a throwback to the giant-bug howlers of Gordon Douglas and Jack Arnold than just another post-modern fright comedy long on ironic genre in-references and short on any real thrills. In tone it reminds a great deal of Joe Dante's Gremlins II--more jokey than scary, in other words, and, like Gremlins II, Eight Legged Freaks works better than it ought to because of some fairly nifty special effects (I've seen worse CGI) and better-than-average performances from its B-list cast.
The picture announces early on that it's going to avoid any true shock (though it does have more bite than Frank Marshall's Arachnophobia) during the cartoonish demise of an unfortunate kitty, all the while demonstrating an admirable willingness to kill off a good portion of the small town of Prosperity, AZ in ways that at least once or twice inspire goofy exclamations of morbid delight.
Chris (David Arquette) is the kind of soulful prodigal who returns to small towns in movies of Eight Legged Freaks' ilk, and beautiful Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) is the kind of spunky small-town sheriff appearing mostly in the same. Chris loves Sam, but before he can tell her a horde of giant mutant spiders comes between them. Young Matt (Scott Terra) is the spider geek no one believes (a convention on which Matt comments at one point), sister Ashley (mopey Scarlett Johansson) provides the requisite teen heroine for the wallets of the babysitter's club and their lecherous boyfriends, and conspiracy theorist Harlan (Doug E. Doug) provides the requisite African-American comic relief/voice of reason.
Structurally identical to Louis Morneau's recent creature-feature flop Bats (which was actually not all that bad), Eight Legged Freaks benefits from the built-in "ick" factor of spiders, giant or otherwise. Its showpiece scene--a pack of jumping spiders chasing a group of dirt-bikers--isn't as impressive as an apocalyptic scene of the beasties overrunning Main Street, but I confess that the insistence on anthropomorphizing the critters has the unfortunate effect of making the monsters sort of cute.
Adorable or not, there's no scrimping on their numbers, and if the last half-hour is cacophonous and predictably moronic, there are a surprising number of quiet character exchanges in the introductory scenes to pleasantly pass the time between spider attacks. Ultimately, Eight Legged Freaks falls somewhere short of Tremors on the modern B-scene: neither as funny nor as clever, though an agreeably unpretentious and relatively inoffensive way to spend ninety minutes. Originally published: July 17, 2002.
Made for the New Zealand Film Commission by Ellory Elkayem, the black-and-white Larger Than Life (12 mins.) tells of a woman (Rebecca Hobbs) who buys a house in the boonies and finds it overrun by spiders that increase in size as the film wears on. When Larger Than Life was shown at Telluride, Elkayem explains in prologue script, ID4 producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich immediately confessed to him their desire to revive the mutant-bug genre, and Eight Legged Freaks was born of their subsequent collaboration. Larger Than Life might just be the better movie: its performances are more engaged, its puppetry has an elegant simplicity (not to devalue Eight Legged Freaks' brilliant effects work), and there's no standard evil-bureaucrat plot to contend with.-BC
by Bill Chambers Warner releases concurrent widescreen and full-frame editions of Eight Legged Freaks on DVD. Our review copy was the former, which presents the film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of inconsistent quality. Grain is on the harsh, noisy side throughout and black level tends never to go deep, although shadow detail is good. Colours are flat but I have a feeling that's more the fault of the cinematography than of the telecine operators. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is equally disappointing: Despite some unsettling split-surround effects, there's not a lot going on in the track, while bass is on the mushy side.
Extra features on the disc include group commentary from director Ellory Elkayem, stars David Arquette and Rick Overton, and producer Dean Devlin. Theirs is a surprisingly dry session that consists of little more than "that's a CG spider. That's not a CG spider. That's a CG spider." We do learn that Arquette came up with the film's title as an ad lib. A block of eleven deleted scenes totalling thirteen minutes contains alternative opening and closing scenes that are now difficult to imagine in context. A text history of giant monster movies ("Creepy Crawly Giants"), filmographies for Arquette, Elkayem, and the screenwriters, a complex ROM videogame called "High Voltage Challenge: Let the Squashing Begin" (plus ROM-enabled weblinks), Elkayem's short Larger Than Life (see above sidebar; the picture is in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Surround audio), and Eight Legged Freaks' theatrical trailer round out the disc. Originally published: October 29, 2002.