We’ve already had an enjoyable spider movie this summer–Sam Raimi’s take on the Marvel costumed super-hero–and so maybe it’s the way of providence to balance good and evil in the universe by providing us with a lousy one to compensate. “Eight Legged Freaks” is neither funny nor frightening, just messy and–despite lots of manic action–curiously dull. It’s so crummy that you might feel like squishing it underfoot when it’s over.
To be sure, the makers aren’t aiming very high in “Freaks” (a terrible title slapped onto the finished project in lieu of the original moniker, “Arac Attack,” which survives in two lines of dialogue), but they still fall way short of their target. The goal was to fashion an enjoyably campy homage to B-pictures of the 1950s in the shape of a partly farcical, partly scary tale about an isolated small town invaded by a swarm of arachnids grown to huge size by exposure to toxic chemicals (buried by the obligatory greedy businessman, of course). Spiders are well-worn villains in such affairs–both the giant variety (1955’s “Tarantula,” which remains a pretty good little thriller) and regular-sized (the creepily funny 1990 “Arachnophobia”). But except for the arachnoid motif “Freaks” really resembles neither of them as much as “The Blob” and “Gremlins.” Unfortunately, the comparisons are not in its favor. The woozily cheesy flick that introduced “Steven” McQueen in 1958 was by no means good, but at least it was innocently bad; in any event, it’s already been “remade” better not only in the giant-worm hoot “Tremors” (1990), in which both Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward were far more amusing hayseed heroes than anybody on display here, but even in Chuck Russell’s actual 1988 recycling, which, while awfully grisly, wasn’t all bad. “Gremlins,” meanwhile, also used the notion of a town under attack by a swarm of beasties, but it was endowed with style, energy and a wickedly dark strain of humor by Joe Dante, one of the most underappreciated of directors. Unfortunately, first-timer Ellory Elkayem is nowhere near the same league. The script that he’s devised with Jesse Alexander is a typical hodgepodge of genre cliches–all-too-predictable situations, pallid characters, lame dialogue and repetitive action, which are supposed to be simultaneously hilarious and scary. But merely assembling such a conglomeration of “greatest hits” isn’t enough; it has to be staged with the right sort of loopy skill in order to appear (as “Gremlins” did, for instance) both charmingly old-hat and somehow fresh at the same time. Elkayem, however, directs like a nervous traffic cop on his first day of duty. The big crowd sequences are sloppily done, and they’re not at all helped by special effects that are decidedly bottom-drawer. Their chintzy quality may be intentional, but by itself that’s not amusing–the context in which they occur needs to be fun. Here, the surrounding moments are mostly boring, filled with deliberately bad writing and dopey characters that need to be more sharply drawn if they’re to be endearingly stupid instead of annoyingly dumb. All the acting is terrible, and whether that’s deliberate or accidental is immaterial–the slackness and sloppiness of everything around them leaves the cast to play their stock characters without anything humorous to do or say anyway. David Arquette does his standard doofus shtick as the young fellow who’s just returned home to save the day, Kari Wuhrer is the local sheriff he’s pined after for years, Scarlett Johansson is the sheriff’s nubile daughter, and Scott Terra her bespectacled, spider-loving son; they’re all tedious in different ways, but at least they’re not reduced to the level of Doug E. Doug, who’s previously been consistently winning on both the big and the small screen but here just mugs mercilessly trying to sock home the irritating blather he has to mouth as a local conspiracy-obsessed dude who broadcasts his rants over a pirate radio station. In a gallery of actors badly used, Doug’s certainly stuck with the most embarrassing material.
If you’re extremely charitable you might be willing to excuse “Eight Legged Freaks” as intentionally junky camp, but even then there’s a problem. Authentic camp happens accidentally, like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and Ed Wood’s other masterpieces, in which people actually try to do their best and fail miserably. Prefabricated camp–or insta-camp, as it might be advertised–is an entirely different deal, and very difficult to pull off; unless it’s very cleverly done, you get “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and other sorry flicks of that type. Even on the camp level, “Freaks” falls into the second category, and it never manages to go beyond boilerplate recreation to add spice to its borrowings. At one point in it, we see flickering on a TV monitor a brief segment of one of the old giant-insect movies it’s trying to emulate–1954’s “Them!” (another tidy little period thriller). (Presumably footage from it was used, despite the fact that it involved ants rather than spiders, because it’s part of the Warner Brothers library, while “Tarantula” was a Universal International release.) If you want to have a really good time, you’d be well advised to skip this ramshackle bit of redundancy and rent that movie instead.