As popular films recede into history, it becomes more acceptable to interpret them sociologically. Horror movie buffs in Internet chat groups deride intellectual accounts of Jeepers Creepers (2001) or The Crow (1994), but have no problem with the notion that Night of the Living Dead (1968) is about the Vietnam war, or that every film about giant bugs made in the '50s reflects America's fear of a Communist menace.
All good horror films are driven by underlying ideas like these, consciously or not. The problem with Eight Legged Freaks is that it has no ideas at all. It revisits the giant-bug genre purely as a source of nostalgic, wickedly camp, so-bad-it's-good humour. The result is very flat.
Even the social anxiety provoked by an onslaught of chemically enhanced spiders is channelled into a lame joke here, in the person of Harlan (Doug E. Doug), a freaked-out conspiracy theorist broadcasting on pirate radio. At least Harlan is a little more engaging than the pale heroes of this story, homecoming boy Chris (David Arquette) and single mother cop Sam (trashy B movie icon Kari Wuhrer).
Director and co-writer Ellory Elkayem, a New Zealander, perfunctorily sketches a small town community and hints at the tensions (such as the development of a mall) that are needling it. But once the spiders start rampaging, seemingly hundreds of locals disappear in a blink without the slightest display of compassion on the film's part. This rather undermines its nominal civic theme.
Eight Legged Freaks (it's the film which left out the hyphen in eight-legged, not me – there are more than eight of the critters) cannot avoid comparison with two key movies of the '90s, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996) and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997). Elkayem adopts their cartoon style of digital animation which places sudden, sharp foreground detail against a teeming backdrop of mass destruction. But his story entirely lacks the subversive edge of those postmodern predecessors.
Like many contemporary entertainments, Eight Legged Freaks seems to visibly oscillate between fun for the whole family and something a little blacker. The spectacle of violence is blunted by giving the spiders silly, chattering Gremlin-like voices. And the gross-out sex jokes are so fleeting and attenuated you can easily miss them.
The movie builds momentum only in the John Carpenter-style passages where the whole town is under siege in the mall, or characters race on motorbikes through underground tunnels, fleeing insects or fireballs.
© Adrian Martin September 2002