In the early 2000s, America was in dire need of a good time, and Ellory Elkayem brought it in spades with what is one of the most criminally overlooked monster comedies of all time.
Eight Legged Freaks came to the big screen from the indie director in 2002. Elkayem had mined the idea from a black and white short film from 1997 entitled Larger than Life. I vividly remember watching the short on the Sci Fi Channel series “Exposure,” where Elkayem unveiled the short for audiences and revealed he was working on a big screen adaptation.
When the big screen adaptation eventually did hit theaters, another spider-oriented film (a certain Mr. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man) completely consumed pop culture that same year, prompting Eight Legged Freaks to be generally pushed aside and forgotten. Despite the TV ads drawing humor from the Sam Raimi blockbuster, Eight Legged Freaks never quite caught on, and has lived on as a genuinely unappreciated hybrid of giant monster movies, giant bug movies, horror, and comedy.
David Arquette is the unlikely hero Chris, who returns to his hometown of Prosperity, Arizona, a small dusky land that’s built on an abandoned mine. Chris, who has returned after leaving a decade before, hopes to reconnect with the love of his life Samantha who is now the Sheriff. He is surprised to learn that the town mayor Wade wants to restructure the place for the sake of tourism and bringing in new town folks. Building a new mall against the will of the town, Wade proposes either shutting down the town or moving elsewhere.
As Wade continues underhanded deals, a barrel of toxic waste falls into a local reservoir affecting the wildlife, including the crickets. When local spider collector Joshua feeds the crickets to his gallery of deadly and rare spiders, they ingest the toxic waste and begin growing to horrific size. After preying on Joshua, the now predatory and hungry giant spiders make their way through Prosperity, kidnapping various members of the town, dragging them into the abandoned mines. Now with the town being overrun by the giant spiders, it’s up to Chris, Samantha, her kids Mike and Ashley, hapless Deputy Pete, and local conspiracy theorist Harlan to convince locals of the looming threat and put a stop to them before the monsters spread out into other towns.
Elkayem shifts the setting and tone from Larger than Life a bit for a more contemporary setting, as opposed to the fifties chic short, and the change benefits the film a great deal. Eight Legged Freaks is a fast paced throwback to the classic monster movies of the nuclear age that always has its thumb on the pulse of what make these movies so much damn fun. While Arquette mostly plays the role with a straight face, most of the horror and comedy comes from the vicious spiders, all of whom have a huge appetite, and murmur to one another (voices provided by the immortal Frank Welker). Writers Elkayem and Jesse Alexander bring a lot of plot to the film’s script, but balance it out well, while never forgetting to deliver on some prime spider carnage.
With visual effects from CFX, Eight Legged Freaks embraces the traditional tropes of the schlocky science fiction films from the fifties, while also staging some genuinely creepy and vicious scenes of spider carnage. Among them, there’s a tense chase scene where a group of dirt bikers flee from hungry jumping spiders, a close encounter with a giant tarantula on a police car, and a big fight between a house cat and a scout spider inside a wall. And who can forget the big turn of events where daughter Ashley is pinned and covered by the webbing of a giant orb weaver spider? Eight Legged Freaks is low budget, but the charm lies in the obviously-somewhat-dated computer animation that brings the arachnid monsters to life.
Not to mention that Elkayem is able to build a fun cast that contributes to the energy a great deal. Along with horror veterans Kari Wuhrer and Tom Noonan, Arquette (coming off of the Scream series) is joined by Scarlett Johansson, before she became a blockbuster star. The cast collectively garners excellent chemistry, each of them portraying smart and sensible protagonists who almost always display common sense during this extraordinary circumstance. In fact, most of the basis for defeating these giant spiders relies on young hero Mike’s encyclopedic knowledge of arachnids, which allows the humans the upper hand… however temporary.
True, Eight Legged Freaks adheres to a ton of the great and memorable monster movie tropes, but writers Elkayem and Alexander also restructure a lot of the classic character archetypes that we’re used to seeing in this kind of movie. Arquette plays the hero, but he’s more of an every guy, all the while Kari Wuhrer’s turn as sheriff Samantha Parker is a great precursor to a lot of the modern horror heroines who take on the monsters rather than run and hide. In fact most of the men in Eight Legged Freaks have little idea how to evade the giant spiders save for Samantha, who always has a plan in mind. One of the banner moments in her story arc shows the town folks fleeing from the spiders and hiding out in the abandoned mall, all the while Samantha and deputy Pete hold the fort with her handy shotgun in tow. This leads in to one of the greatest mall sieges since the climax of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
With such a solid cast, a score by John Ottman, “X-Files” director of photography John Bartley working on the speedy film shoot, and producing duties going to Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, Eight Legged Freaks seemed like a formula for a hit. Sadly, Elkayem’s pet project barely made a dent commercially and was ushered off to a pretty measly home DVD release. It’s a shame, because Eight Legged Freaks has everything for just about everyone, and doesn’t mind poking fun at itself from time to time. It’s deserving of a second look, especially in a film climate where audiences are once again welcoming of giant monster movies like Big Ass Spider! and Kong: Skull Island.