Eight Legged Freaks

Jul 24, 2002 at 12:00 am

It’s a beautiful day in Southern Somewhere, USA. The local pirate DJ is spreading paranoia on his conspiracy radio show, and barrels of hazardous waste fall off a passing truck, oozing their contents into the local pond. One week later, it’s still a beautiful day as Joshua (Tom Noonan) collects insects from the local pond to feed to his exotic spiders.

Elsewhere in this hapless small town, wayward denizen Chris McCormick (David Arquette) returns after a 10-year absence to patch up his late father’s unfulfilled legacy and proclaim his unspoken love for Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer), the sexiest single-mother sheriff in the county. And Wade (Leon Rippy), the town’s leading profiteer, cooks up another scheme to kick-start the city’s waning economy, in addition to his other money-making catastrophes — building the customer-scarce Prosperity Mall and starting an “alternative meat” ostrich farm. Little does Wade know his ostriches will soon be in high demand, but from nonpaying customers.

What happens when you mix toxic waste with a touch of Hooterville and an exotic spider farm? You’ve got it: Eight Legged Freaks. Directed by Ellory Elkayem (They Nest, Larger Than Life), the film takes the classic ’70s B-movie horror scenario, chews it up and regurgitates it with very un-’70s cell phones and the high-tech visual effects all those zillions of low-tech horror films were missing. Jumping spiders are terrifying enough when they’re half the size of your fingernail — try tangling with one that covers the roof of your Buick.

You’ve seen giant-spider movies before. Usually the laughs come out of comical attempts at portraying the hairy, multieyed, long-legged beasts in bad, superimposed tarantulaic projections or ludicrous cardboard constructions that move in maybe two directions. But forget the awkward arachnids of the past, because now monster spiders move freaky-fast, spin hydraulic webs and work together toward a singular goal, despite their ethnic differences.

You can tell just by the title that this film carries a sense of humor along with all the goo-squirting and blood-sucking. A pet cat wanders into a hole in the drywall as its owner expands his kitchen. The workers try to coax it out with a bowl of food, but instead hear a cat-screeching ruckus, followed by scraping, pounding and little kitty imprints embossed through the drywall all over the room as “something” big and unseen paws the pussy. Freaks is funny, but keeps the action serious enough to make you jump and squirm as humans are swallowed up by trap-door spiders or web-mummified for a treat later on.

Somehow, the town’s fate ends up in Arquette’s lap. Whether he’s plugging phone companies, portraying a male prostitute headed for tragedy or fending off myriad mutations as the ill-fated McCormick, Arquette possesses a lovably vulnerable “boyness” mingled with a streak of eccentricity. It’s a rare combination of qualities that I never tire of or get enough of, and he’s just the guy to lead us through this cinematic fun ride where creepy-crawly things constantly pop out from off-screen.

Like many of the films released in the last few years, Eight Legged Freaks maintains a sense of self-awareness and self-mockery, illustrating today’s psychologically hip zeitgeist. Mike Parker (Scott Terra) is Sheriff Parker’s scientific-minded, Internet-savvy, teen son with the Harry Potter glasses. When he hitches a ride home with Chris, he shows him an object that looks like a foot-and-a-half-long, furry, bent stick. He claims it’s an exoskeleton of a spider’s leg, then gives him the mutant-spider spiel. Chris doesn’t let on that he buys it (or doesn’t), until the kid says, “But you’re not gonna believe me ’cause I’m a kid, and they never believe the kid.” Chris replies, “You know, it does look like a piece of cactus.” Freaks takes that awareness and plays with it, adding another entertaining layer onto a scenario we’re already familiar with, like we’re all in on the same joke.

Eight Legged Freaks is drive-in-flavored arachnid anarchy in a post-drive-in era, utilizing today’s computer technology in a post-Ray Harryhausen era, yet still able to give our big, sticky-villains a little personality.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].