Two Legs Bad, Eight Legs - Mmm, Well, Okay
I have a thing about spiders. Strictly speaking I suppose the word is arachnophobia, but most spiders I'm completely fine about. It's just the ones that won't comfortably fit in the palm of my hand that start to get me a little jittery, and that includes ones that my rational mind tells me aren't actually real. I don't care. The idea of those eight skittling hairy legs, the plump velvety body, the glinting mirrorshade eyes, all blown up to man-size or beyond, well, it just gets to me in a way I'm really not pleased about.
So the prospect of not only Shelob but also Aragog hitting our screens this Christmas1 was an unsettling one even before I heard about the dedicated giant spider movie Eight Legged Freaks. Seldom before have I been so undecided about whether to see a particular film.
But in the end I felt morally obliged to, because on paper it's right up my street: it's a 1950s sci-fi B-movie pastiche produced by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the guys responsible for Independence Day and the American Godzilla. I honestly felt that I couldn't stay away. And so, after much pacing the pub toilet muttering 'Come on! Who's a tough guy?' to myself, it was time to brave the auditorium...
In Ellory Elkayem's film, illegal toxic waste finds its way into the water supply of the small Arizona town of Prosperity. One of the locals collects insect grubs from said water supply to feed to his vast collection of exotic spiders (this is because his job is farming the things). When he discovers that eating the contaminated grubs set the little b*******s a-growin... at an alarming rate, he does not smush them all or call in the authorities but instead redoubles this unorthodox arachnid steroid treatment (this is because he is clearly certifiably insane). Not ones to hang about, the beefed-up aranea stage a jail-break very early on in the film and skedaddle for the abandoned mine-workings conveniently running beneath the rest of the town (this is because it would be a very dull movie if the spiders all headed for, for example, New Zealand, and got jobs in the special effects business).
After this opening ten minutes or so, it's a movie of two halves. With any kind of monster picture it's important to get the balance right between the 'build-up' section where the creature is lurking around off-screen, only seen partially or for split-seconds, and the 'money' section where it rampages around in full view of the camera. Eight Legged Freaks gets this just about right, as for many long minutes segmented legs are glimpsed scuttling out-of-shot, family pets are dragged through holes in walls, and I just sat there wishing the proper giant spiders would actually appear before I bit through my damned notebook.
Elkayem makes moderately good use of this time to establish the human characters and background, but it is a fairly perfunctory job. Prosperity seems populated largely by stereotypes: David Arquette plays the drifter back in his home town after years away. He is an implausible action hero: his performance not only makes you wish that Bruce Campbell had been available, but leads you to suspect that the director wished he had been, too. (Arquette's warnings that the old abandoned mine is filled with DANGEROUS EXPLOSIVE METHANE GAS seem to telegraph the ending so blatantly that you wonder if this is some kind of ironic, post-modern red herring. It is not.) The female lead is Kari Wuhrer, from - er - Anaconda, here she plays the town's sheriff, a single mom with two rather irksome kids (Scarlett Johansson and Scott Terra). Other citizens include the nasty money-grubbing local entrepreneur (Leon Rippy), the comic-relief dimwitted deputy sheriff (Rick Overton), and the comic-relief hysterical (but not, it must be said, hysterically funny) token Afro-American (Doug E Doug).
The giant spiders are the real stars of the film, anyway, and to my great relief all the sneaking around soon concluded and it was time for arachnogeddon! Interestingly, after all the build-up, Elkayem wheels them on disarmingly casually: a pack of them ambles over a hill in the background without fanfare or suspense. From this point the movie kicks into high gear as jumping spiders, trapdoor spiders, weaver spiders and tarantulas the size of bulldozers all get to do their stuff in a succession of effects-driven set pieces. It all looks as spectacular as one would hope, given that two-thirds of the budget went on the CGI. And, thoughtfully, it's all done with a dark sense of fun that keeps it as bracingly horrible entertainment rather than an excursion into pure nightmare.
It's probably impossible to do a straight-faced big bug picture these days, and - probably wisely - Eight Legged Freaks doesn't really try to. It's rather jokey, it's openly derivative (the climax owes a bit to Dawn of the Dead and inevitably someone's watching Them! on TV at one point), and the plot and characters are very underdeveloped. But I honestly enjoyed myself a lot, because it's enthusiastically written and played and the FX are frequently outstanding. And, thank God, it doesn't try too hard to be scary: Eight Legged Freaks is very spidery indeed in that behind the intimidating exterior there lies a rather soft centre.