Thanks to streaming, direct-to-DVD entries and entities like the Syfy Channel once seemingly churning out similar themed movies at a frightening rate, the onslaught of killer bug movies has never really slowed, but instead thrives and crawls in the metaphorical nooks and crannies of filmmaking, rarely scuttling into the light where everyone can see them. But for every dozen or so, low-budget potboiler that features enbiggened mosquitoes, ticks and other such shudder inducing insect life, every now and then a big budget entry will creep into cinemas.
Usually involving spiders (surely the insect equivalent of all those fucking shark movies that seemingly assault us every month), the most notable “modern” example is undoubtedly Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia, cinema’s eight legged apex predator of arach attacks, but that was all the way back in 1990. Has there been no big budgeted bug blow outs since then – that isn’t Starship Troopers? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to lift up a rock and remind you of the massively underrated existence of Eight Legged Freaks.
In one of those cash strapped mining towns that always seem to have ironic names (take a bow, Prosperity, Arizona) a van accidently drops part of its load sending a barrel of toxic waste tumbling into the nearby river which in turn effects the local cricket population. Nothing to fret about aside from the massive environmental infraction, but weeks later, things start to become an issue when a local exotic spider farmer starts feeding said crickets to his attractions who start to grow much larger than usual much to the fascination of young bug nerd Michael Parker. However, the icky little fuckers keep growing and after escaping and killing the farmer, the spiders continue to grow and find their way into the maze of mining tunnels that exist under the town.
A week passes and notorious black sheep Chris McCormack has returned to Prosperity to block the Mayor’s plan to get everyone to sell their land in order to turn the place in a dumping area for industrial waste while hopefully rekindling his feelings for Sam, now the town Sheriff and mother to Michael and his teen sister, Ashley. However, after clearing out the unsuspecting town of its pets and stray animals, the many different species of spider, now grown to an alarming size, have moved up the fold chain and are swiping humans to deliver to their “boss” a gargantuan orb weaver named Consuela who busies herself by drinking her webbed up packages alive.
As this army of giant spiders is way too big to pick up with a bit of tissue paper and chuck in the toilet, Chris, Sam and the oddball town residents have to dig in, pull together and fight off this mutli-legged threat before they literally drop like flies.
So to immediately broach a criticism that was brought up at the time, its admittedly a shame that Hollywood is somewhat reluctant to fully get behind a killer spider movie that isn’t wilfully as camp as a row of tents and treat the concept with sense of seriousness. With that being said… if you’re going to go silly with a bunch of (then) state of the art arachnids, then you could far worse then going full Gremlins like Eight Legged Freaks gloriously does.
Shamelessly copying Joe Dante’s style to a tee with Spielbergian moppets, small town eccentrics and a mischievous army of chittering villains that veer between creepy and laughable (often in the same scene), Ellory Elkayem delivers a fun romp that obviously worships at the same 50’s monster movie altar as Dante. Christ, even composer John Ottman seems like he’s been possessed by Jerry Goldsmith as he cheekily weaves in (pun intended) nursery rhyme Incy Wincy Spider into the score.
It’s fitting, because for all their goofing around, the spiders are given ample time to be Incy and definitely be Wincey as the movie experiments with as much skin-crawling imagery its rating will allow, no doubt causing archnophobes to have quite the shudder inducing freak out.
A man sucks on a hose in order to clear a blockage (seems dangerous anyway, but ok) only to get a mouthful of creepy crawlers for his trouble, a big-ass arachnid slowly looms from behind the sofa of an oblivious old codger and the sequence where a horde of trapdoor spiders yank fleeing folk into their underground dens is truly the stuff of web spinning nightmares, but the budget allows the movie to go impressively unsubtle too. Sure the pixelated leaping spiders that attack a gang of dirt biking teens may not have aged that well, but the sequence sure is fun and the technology allows the hairy legged shits to perform some prime prat-falling as they splat against windows with their mangled bodies sliding down them with an audible squeak and pop satisfyingly under the wheels of trucks. But the fact that the movie takes the Starship Troopers route and assigns each spider kind of a military rank with the hefty tarantula acting like a tank for example and the leapers as nimble grunts which gives the buggers a sense of personality.
Speaking of personality, the cast is a nice cluster of cult actors (David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Tom Noonan) and even a superstar in waiting (a pre-Lost In Translation Scarlett Johansson) who milk the material for all it’s worth – Arquette shrieking “They’re here!” as a tribute to Kevin McCarthy in Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers is almost worth the price of admission alone.
The movie also is nicely sweet when it comes to the survival instinct of the members of the cast with the script taking a Tremors-esque approach, keeping virtually all of its main cast even some bad guys and some random, nameless background characters still standing by the time the credits roll – but then, despite a huge body count of people getting pounced on by digital predators, that’s not really the film Eight Legged Freaks is trying to be.
Some will undoubtedly find the silliness a step (or eight) too far with spiders plainly squeaking “Ouch” as they die and shamelessly goofy dialogue aplenty (“What exactly was that?”, “Spider, man.”), but the movie should really be taken as the loving homage it obviously is as it wilfully takes the form of the giant bug movie version of a big, dumb dad joke.
Endearingly silly, legitimately exciting and undeniably fun, Eight Legged Freaks was unfairly squished at the box office, but give it a chance and it’ll wrap you up in its warm, chucklesome web.