Eight Legged Freaks (2002) ***1/2
Director: Ellory Elkayem
Runtime: 1h 40m
Those readers who recall my review of Earth vs. the Spider (1958), will remember that I made a point of dwelling on the monster’s ridiculous scream. Indeed, that indescribable wail was a big part of the reason why I loved that crappy movie as much as I did. The rest can be attributed to director Bert I. Gordon’s undeniable enthusiasm and skillful use of shoestring special effects. Today’s movie doesn’t have the low-rent special effects, indeed the CGI spiders in Eight Legged Freaks are some of the better examples that I’ve seen, but it manages to surpass the earlier film’s energy. Even more surprising, it includes that same goofy roar, or one so similar that my untrained ear cannot even tell the difference. For the most part the spiders make goofy sounds that make them seem more cartoonish than anything else, but one giant tarantula unmistakably give us the old Bert I. Gordon shriek! Add in a few other references to 1950s sci-fi/horror movies and it becomes obvious that this is a movie that appeals equally to aficionados and casual fans. Indeed, Eight Legged Freaks is one of the most infectiously enjoyable movies I’ve seen all year.
Eight Legged Freaks (No acronym used because this is way too much fun to write) may have the heart of a 1950s monster movie, but its brain is rooted in the 1970s eco-terror movies. The giant spiders of today’s film are not conjured into existence by scientists with too much plutonium and not enough sanity or common sense, nor are they alien invaders, or even prehistoric abominations released into the world of the living by seismic activity. No, the giant spiders are the result of sinister capitalists, paying off the local corrupt government so they can dump their toxic waste in an abandoned mine-shaft under the small town of Prosperity Arizona. Those of you worried that a lecture about environmentalism (an important subject no-doubt, but I’m not watching a movie called Eight Legged Freaks if the result is anything aside from entertainment) will intrude upon your mindless horror film need not fear: The crooked capitalists will never so much as appear on-camera, and the shady local politician is just around so there’s somebody we can watch get eaten without feeling too bad about it.
The trouble starts when one of the trucks bound for Prosperity’s mines crashes and spills its cargo all over a local pond. For a couple weeks no obvious problems are noticed, indeed everything seems to be fine until a local eccentric named Joshua, the proprietor of a small menagerie of exotic spiders (including jumping spiders, tarantulas, Orb-weavers and trapdoor spiders) begins feeding small bugs taken from the spill site to his collection. For whatever reason, Eight Legged Freaks is not overly concerned with science, the spiders begin to grow unnaturally large. Joshua shows this off to the local disaffected nerd Mike, who is playing Marty McFly to his Doc Brown. At this point the spiders are unnaturally big, but still manageable. They don’t stay that way for very long, eventually ballooning up to such a size that they start to see humans as viable prey. Mike doesn’t know anything about this development though, because his Mom, Sheriff Sam Parker, forbids him from visiting the creepy old weirdo. It’s probably for the best that Mike isn’t allowed around the spider museum, in a few days the giant spiders break loose and eat Joshua whole. Alas, he’s breeding spiders and forming inappropriate relationships with young boys in heaven now.
At this point Chris McCormick, the prodigal heir of the McCormick family that previously ran the town’s mining interest returns home after an extended absence. His goal is fine the fabled gold deposit in his father’s mine and revitalize the town. Naturally he butts heads with Mayor Wade, the local corrupt politician mentioned above, who wants to sell the whole town to corporations to use as a toxic dumping ground. Wade is worried that Chris will find gold in the old mine and his deal will fall through, leaving him high and dry with a struggling emu farm and nearly abandoned mall. Nothing really comes of this side-plot though, so we can safely forget about it. All bets are off once Chris discovers giant spiders are nesting in the mines and beginning to attack the surface. The only one who believes his crazy stories about giant spiders attacking people is Mike though, and there is not much that a twelve year old can do to help. It’s going to be an uphill battle to convince anyone who has already undergone puberty.
Still, compared to its predecessors Eight Legged Freaks has a very short period where the authorities are either ignorant of or actively denying the existence of a problem. This compressed Vaughn Window* is one of Eight Legged Freaks greatest assets. Once the stage is set the spiders show up almost immediately and begin to wreak havoc almost at once. The first ones to suffer an attack are a group of dirt-bikers, including the mayor’s rebellious son Bret. Sam’s daughter Ashley has just dumped Bret, so that spider attack is just the capstone of an already shitty day. The rest of the X-treme sports enthusiasts are massacred, but thanks to a little help from a crashed fuel tanker Bret is able to escape into the mines. Next on the menu is the girl who spurned him: Ashley is attacked by spiders just as Sam has told her son Mike that the spiders he’s worried about are nothing more than a product of his wild imagination and too many old horror movies. To her credit Sam changes her tune and makes a B-line for her shotgun the moment she sees her daughter coated in webbing.
The protagonists aren’t the only ones in trouble; the spiders have already begun to attack the town of Prosperity itself. Using the radio of local disc-jockey/paranoid schizophrenic Harlan, Sam is able to get out a warning to the townspeople. There’s no time to mount a proper defense, so she encourages everyone to pack up whatever weapons they can find and gather in Mayor Wade’s boondoggle mall. The townspeople make a pretty motley looking army, with some rather eccentric armaments. This being set in America, there are plenty of conventional firearms present, but the main force is complimented by no fewer than two men wielding chainsaws (one in a hockey mask at that). The less well-armed include people wielding brooms and lawn-chairs. Naturally they aren’t going to hold up long in a fight so Chris and Harlan head to the radio tower on top of the mall to see if they can get help from the proper authorities. The rest of the townsfolk hunker down for a Dawn of the Dead (1978) style mall siege. Meanwhile, Mayor Wade decides his best bet for survival is to try to escape alone through the mines, which for some reason he has connected to the basement of his mall.
My favorite character in this film is not one of the ostensible heroes, but instead Pete – Sam’s incompetent and mild-mannered deputy. The henpecked Pete is one of the first people affected by the spider attacks, when his wife’s cat (which she plainly prefers to him) is killed in a sequence that resembles nothing so much as an exceptionally gruesome Tom and Jerry cartoon. Pete’s wife blames him for the death of the cat and promptly abandons her husband. The heartbroken Pete cries through his next shift at the police station. At this point you would expect Pete to be the hapless comic relief for the entirety of the movie, but when the spider attacks begin in earnest he turns out to be the most courageous and skilled of all the combatants. Without spoiling too much, it’s Pete, not any of the nominal heroes, who manages to save the day.
The spiders are the real life-blood of the film, and unlike far too many B-grade monster movies, Eight Legged Freaks is conscious of the fact. Not only do we get to see plenty of spiders, the film also gives us a variety among the monsters, something that I have never encountered in a giant bug movie before. Jumping spiders leap after teens fleeing on dirt bikes, trapdoor spiders pop out of their holes and devour fleeing pedestrians, the giant tarantula topples motor-homes and towers over the other spiders. The turn of the century CGI makes the spiders look like low-level bosses in a fantasy RPG, but given the lighthearted tone of the movie this is as much an asset as it is a liability. The spiders can’t inspire any real fear, but they sure do bring a lot of joy along with them.
* Named for mayor Larry Vaughn from Jaws (1975).