Eight Legged Freaks

(2002) ** 1/2 Pg-13
99 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Ellory Elkayem. Cast: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug.

If I were to give a "State of the Movies" address, I'd like to be able to say that creativity remained an important part of the process, but (sigh) Hollywood producers seem intent on making us movie critics name-drop each assembly-line picture's forebears. So here goes. In the recent tradition of Gremlins, Arachnophobia, and Tremors (the latter two both from 1990) comes Eight Legged Freaks. Of course, all of these pictures owe a debt to their atomic-age ancestors (like Them!), but at least when Gremlins or Tremors came out, one could argue that we had not yet seen the likes of their particular senses and sensibilities. The "arac attack" of Eight Legged Freaks, on the other hand, is openly derivative, if surprisingly competent and hopelessly entertaining.

Eight Legged Freaks opens with the line, "Do you know fear?" which is a bit of a red herring for a movie whose spiders aren't very creepy. Instead, the spiders are swiftly agressive and, with their anthropomorphic cackling and squealing, goofily funny (Still, they inspired enough fear to elicit clockwork screams from at least one woman at my screening). Anyway, the one asking the question is Freedom Radio DJ Harlan (Doug E. Doug), a wolf-crying conspiracy theorist who heads up Prosperity Valley's eccentric, B-movie population of spider fodder. When chemical waste makes its way to Taft's Exotic Spider Farm, the mutant spiders soon unleash themselves on the fifties-flavored backwater. David Arquette plays Chris McCormack, the town's returning prodigal son, and Kari Wuhrer plays Sam, the town sheriff for whom he's been pining.

The master stroke of the screenplay (by Jesse Alexander and director Ellory Elkayem) is the use of Sam's son Mike (Scott Terra). Pumping up the already prodigious kid appeal, the writers highlight the Cassandra-like nature of movie kids by giving him all the science-fair spider know-how and building up to the all-empowering line, "Listen to the kid!" As such kids go, Terra's a good one, and he delivers his cracks to adults (like one about what his mom calls a "media-induced, paranoid, delusional nightmare") with aplomb. The writers also score points with parents by slipping in anti-smoking and "wear your helmet" messages.

The picture runs on smart stupidity, so on that level, most will find something to like about it (I enjoyed the loony expository time bombs like an early offhand reference to a white elephant of an ostrich ranch that guarantees a later spider buffet scene). Off-center performers like Arquette, Doug, and Rick Overton (as Barney Fife-ian Deputy Pete) complement likeable ingenues like Wuhrer and Terra. Musty cliches like the TV-playing-black-and-white-irony (here, a product-placed Sci-Fi Channel) abound, and producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich do rely on our short attention spans (did I mention Starship Troopers and Dawn of the Dead?), but Eight Legged Freaks undeniably delivers the jumping-spider-on-steroids goods.

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