There’s this trend in Hollywood these days to revisit the realm of B-movies from days past, only with decent budgets and some more or less well known actors, so what would have been a schlocky late-nighter in the 50s is now the main attraction. Producer Dean Devlin has a particular fondness for inflating cheesy concepts into “event pictures”, having put together such old-fashioned-but-with-modern-FX popcorn movies as “Independence Day” and the American “Godzilla” flick. What Devlin doesn’t understand is that a film bad on purpose is still a bad film. Yes, there are movies so bad that they’re good but (to quote Enid), at some point it gets so bad that it’s back to bad again.
Devlin’s latest production, “Eight... Legged... Freaks!” is such a film. The idea of a Giant Bug Movie actually being released in multiplexes in 2002 is delightful, but that’s almost the total extent of the pleasure it provides. Writer-director Ellory Elkayem keeps piling on clichés for 99 minutes but never bothers giving them a twist or trying to subvert them somehow. The first thing I told my buddies after the movie ended was “It is what it is”, meaning that the movie delivers exactly what you’d expect, namely lotsa big spiders invading a small town. Then why is it so disappointing?
One of the major problems is that the filmmakers don’t seem certain of what tone to adopt. Play it straight or self-mocking? Scary or silly? The movie ends up into sort of a lifeless middle ground in between which fails on all levels. For the first 40 minutes especially, “Eight... Legged... Freaks!” is as forgettable as it gets. While we witness the unlikely way a dropped barrel of toxic waste mutates the inhabitants of some weirdo’s spider farm in the opening moments, we then have to wait to almost halfway through the movie to actually get a proper “arac attack”.
Meanwhile, we have to watch all the one-dimensional characters and inconsequential subplots being introduced clumsily. I don’t know if I was supposed to care about the closing then reopening of the mines, the illegal toxic dumping, the non-romance between a long-gone engineer (David Arquette) and the town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer) or how her teenage daughter (Scarlett Johansson) is hanging with bad biker boys, but I certainly didn’t. Johansson and Arquette have done good work in the past, but here they’re stuck with stale dialogue and lousy attempts at humor. The only mildly enjoyable performance comes from Doug E. Dog as a lunatic broadcasting his conspiracy theories through pirate radio who for once finds that he has reasons to be paranoid!
Now you might say that it’s irrelevant that the characters are boring and that the writing is mediocre, this is about spiders after all, right? Yes, but even when they are put front and center, the film doesn’t ignite. Like the rest of the movie, the special effects are banal, neither ridiculously cheesy or convincing enough to be disturbing. In any case, the spider stuff gets repetitive and tiresome quickly. Giant spider crawls, giant spider jumps, giant spider catches prey, giant spiders traps it in web, rinse and repeat. There is potential for coolness when the townspeople hide in the local mall (shades of “Dawn of the Dead”) and arm themselves with pitchforks, chain-saws and crossbows, but it never pays off. The characters still only stand there and get picked and webbed one after the other.
The money shot of the trailer, in which Arquette unloads a shotgun while dramatically yelling “Get back you EIGHT... LEGGED... FREAKS!” turns out to be the only time where the movie is wonderfully over the top. Other than those ten seconds of bravado, don’t expect anything more than an undistinctive succession of passive victims and raging spiders. No wit, no surprises, no suspense, not even gore or gratuitous nudity... No fun.