- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

"Eight-Legged Freaks" probably should have an exclamation point. In context, it's an insult shrieked by leading man David Arquette at gigantic mutant spiders threatening to wrench him from a seemingly hopeless perch on a radio tower.

The first feature of a New Zealand-born director named Ellory Elkayem, which looks like some kind of word scramble without a solution, "Freaks" was expanded from a parodistic short titled "Larger Than Life" that had won favor in his homeland and then pleased audiences at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado four years ago.

In retrospect, it's easy to surmise that what worked in a resourceful 13-minute format might have been a dubious candidate for feature expansion.

However, the Achilles' heel of the feature is probably the lackluster impact of the spiders themselves. Obviously a post-production gamble that went wrong, they were entrusted to a special-effects shop called CFX, presumably because of its association with co-producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich on the 1997 disaster spectacle "Independence Day."

It must have been a case of miscasting. Magnification and mobility make the title critters of "Eight-Legged Freaks" look ridiculous rather than threatening. The program that allows some of them to hop like science-fiction updates of Mark Twain's legendary jumping frogs of Calaveras County deserves a special niche in the bonehead hall of fame.

Unless I missed something in the interim, the gold standard for monstrous insect life was established by Phil Tippett and his colleagues on "Starship Troopers." The latecomers of "Freaks" fail to measure up by an awesome stretch.

If anything, they'll probably send people back with renewed fondness and respect to such vintage thrillers as "Them" and "Tarantula," which lacked the illustrative tools available to modern trick-shot specialists.

A movie in which David Arquette is the "big name" in the cast invites suspicion of weak chops from the outset. The most valiant feats of spider killing tend to be rationed to the leading lady, Kari Wuhrer as a small-town Arizona sheriff named Sam Parker, and to the improbably lumpy but winning figure of her deputy, Pete, lovably embodied by Rick Overton.

The imperiled town is called Prosperity, an ironic jibe at its depressed condition since the failure of a mining operation. Mr. Arquette is cast as a prodigal son, a mining engineer named Chris McCormick who once was sweet on Sam and manages to endear himself during the crisis.

Following the initial wave of attacks and slaughters, surviving townsfolk take refuge at the mostly defunct Prosperity Mall. The protected characters include Sam's children, Scarlett Johansson as sulky teenager Ashley and Scott Terra as brainiac kid brother Mike, also a spider aficionado; Chris' chain-smoking wreck of an aunt, Gladys (Eileen Ryan); and a crackpot radio broadcaster named Harlan Griffith (Doug E. Doug), who specializes in alarmist drivel about UFOs and political conspiracies.

Mr. Elkayem seems to be overcompensating for the defects of his big, bad spiders by getting ruthless with designated victims. He ostentatiously snuffs a pet cat, tracking its agonies along the plaster in a ceiling and wall. Even a pet pooch gets the fatal treatment, violating one of the unwritten laws of monster-movie depradation. It's admittedly a novelty to see ostriches as a targeted group; Mr. Elkayem is fond of the cartoon trapdoor effect; they're suddenly yanked out of frame from top to bottom.

His glee about sacrificing family pets reflects an unwary tendency that is aggravated when he sics spiders on frenzied bit players. In a technical sense, he overlooks the disillusioning elements in images where a swarm of computer-generated monsters is not so much attacking the extras as mingling with them. It's more bemusing than terrifying to notice the dead spots in the superimposed melee.

The movie also is oblivious to the advantages of illustrating human reactions apart from craven fear. Not even the core heroic group stops to help anyone in peril, for example, while driving from the site of a downtown attack to the relative safety of the mall.

"Freaks" rarely seizes an opportunity to showcase selfless responses, in part because it's too busy chortling in advance about everyone in jeopardy. Getting the first laugh might be a bad idea. Combined with the laughable aspects of the monsters, this gloating impulse could leave the movie up a tree, obliged to escape the contempt of moviegoers who feel more insulted than amused.


1/2*

TITLE: "Eight-Legged Freaks"

RATING: PG-13 (Frequently gruesome, albeit facetious, horror images, predicated on monster spiders terrorizing humans and pets; fleeting profanity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Ellory Elkayem.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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