Itsy-Bitsy Bite

The potential is there, but the harder 'Eight Legged Freaks' tries to be funny, the more the laughs get exterminated

July 17, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Eight Legged Freaks is flimsy goofball entertainment. It's hard not to feel kind toward a giant-arachnid extravaganza in which the spiders chatter like cartoon chipmunks and the soundtrack features "Itsy-Bitsy Spider." But this cheerful homage to rampaging-mutant movies like Them! (1954) would be more amusing if it weren't so scattershot. The filmmakers are so busy adding half-good jokes that they neglect to build on the decent ones.

Director Ellory Elkayem and his co-writer, Jesse Alexander, swiftly introduce their two main ingredients for a summer camp spectacular: a chemical spill outside the failed desert mining town of Prosperity, Ariz., and a recluse who uses infected insects as food for his spider farm. He sees the spiders grow with amazing rapidity, but, of course, never asks how he's gonna keep them down on the farm.

When I first heard the phrase "Arac Attack" (the movie's original title), the rhyme with "Iraq Attack" promised the Mother of All Spider Battles, or at least a few apt puns on the subject - especially since the filmmakers set up the female orb weaver as the literal mother of the mutant spiders' conquest of Prosperity. But this movie has no follow-through.

The 1990 giant-worm thriller Tremors was both funnier and more exciting; thanks to the comic grit of Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon and a supporting cast of fresh caricatures led by Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as crazed survivalists, its feet were planted firmly on the ground (even when the ground was giving way), and its tongue was planted firmly in its cheek.

Eight Legged Freaks seems to be wagging its tongue at the audience. David Arquette plays the mining heir who left Prosperity to get over a broken heart and returns to town just in time to save it. His addled dignity would be engaging if he had a chance to connect with the rest of the cast. Too bad the filmmakers surround him with an overly familiar collection of foils and weirdos.

In this era of cable outlets such as the Sci-Fi Channel, it's astonishing how quickly the satire of fantasy-film cliches can get dated. In Eight Legged Freaks, you know what's coming from the mouth of Prosperity's paranoid, alien-obsessed radio host (Doug E. Doug) even before he says "anal probe" - and then he doesn't stop saying it, as if it's the most uproarious phrase in the known universe.

In addition to Doug's geek chorus, we get Arquette's earthy old aunt (Eileen Ryan), the obligatory sleazy town developer and bumbling deputy (Leon Rippy and Rick Overton, respectively), and the town's female sheriff (Kari Wuhrer) - Arquette's love interest. She's supposed to be an innovation for this kind of movie: a no-nonsense, gun-totin' gal who can handle herself in jeopardy.

Wuhrer has the right amount of gumption; what she needs are pungent lines and memorable bits. Scarlett Johansson brings more to the desired drive-in-movie ambiance as her pouty teen-age daughter, and Scott Terra links up with Early Show memories in the Invaders From Mars role of the sheriff's son, the boy no one will listen to until it's almost too late.

Even at its most enjoyable, Eight Legged Freaks is disappointing - it grazes your funny bone instead of tickling it like crazy. The use of a bankrupt shopping mall as a setting for the human-monster showdown has no resonance beyond evoking George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

Indeed, the jocular verbal and visual references to movies as different as The Sixth Sense, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Friday the 13th and Jurassic Park ultimately fog the brain like too much bug spray.

A couple of throwaway gags operate like comic boomerangs. I loved the ostriches in the movie - brought to town because developer Rippy thought ostrich meat would be the next food craze. They end up as mere dead meat, not burgers. But it's a sad comment on Eight Legged Freaks when the funniest creatures are the ostriches.

WEB SIGHTS

It's been a good year for big-screen arachnids, what with Spider-Man and those spider-like survelllance-bots in Minority Report. And now comes the sci-fi comedy Eight Legged Freaks, about a toxic spill that causes spiders to grow and grow ... and get hungry.

Think you've seen it all before, B-movie fans? Take the following quiz. IdentIfy 13 to 15 of these movies correctly and ... you should immediately rise from your tuffet, shake off the cobwebs and go get some fresh air. (Answers on Page 8E).

Knight Ridder / Tribune

1. Itty-bitty Grant Williams, armed with a pin, battles a tarantula for a morsel of cheese in this '50s classic.

2. Sabu, making off with the eye of a temple god, becomes ensnared In a giant web in this Arabian Nights classic.

3. John Goodman is a quick-on-the-trigger exterminator called in when a lethal visitor from the Amazon takes up residence in a small California town.

4. Willlam Shatner plays a veterinarian battling an infestation of Arizona tarantulas.

5. James Bond finds himself cuddling up to a large, hairy West Indian tarantula In 007's first big-screen outing.

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