Iraq-Naphobia: ‘Roger Corman Presents: Camel Spiders’

The war comes home in this disastrous DVD version of one of SYFY’s flicks of the week. More specifically, spiders the size of your face find their way back to the homefront in Roger Corman Presents: Camel Spiders, a subpar entry into the a genre we generally don’t expect much from, anyway.

This evaluation comes, by the way, from a reviewer who found some praiseworthy elements in Dinocroc vs. Supergator. In fact, I’m smitten with fanboy love for the very name Roger Corman and, actually, reeling in people like me is part of what these productions are all about. The idea is to attach the master’s name to work that makes you think of Humanoids from the Deep or the original Piranha. Sadly, the Corman seal of approval may be slapped on this one, but the weird magic has fled.

Camel Spiders opens with an utterly unconvincing firefight in a desert we are supposed to read as “somewhere in the Middle East”. Notably, it looks exactly like the landscape of the rest of the film that’s supposed to be the American southwest.

In these opening minutes, a horde of dinner plate sized beasts (with an occasional bigger monster thrown in) wipe out… the what? Taliban? Iraqi partisans? Al Qadea? Doesn’t matter, I don’t suppose, they are The Enemy, wearing non-descript “this is a terrorist” clothing, their faces heavily swathed so we wont know they are mostly American extras and no religious and ethnic stereotypes will be ruined.

The monsters wipe out the terrorists and the American forces are saved. But don’t get too exited, American exceptionalists, because a giant spider has hitched a ride in the corpse of an American soldier. The terror has come home.

In other words, it feels like the metaphor just gets up and screams in your face and then punches you in the nose.

It’s not a complete caricature or a simple allegory. I do have to note that a presumably Arab doctor briefly appears after the firefight, deployed to represent a non-descript American ally. This at least saves the film from becoming a crude act of Orientalism. After all, this is Roger Corman Presents, not a Frank Miller comic.

Literally with no transition we are in the American southwest (I think) and the body of the dead serviceman has provided an incubator for more of the camel spiders. These creatures, according to urban legend and the film, can run at high rates of speed, jump in the air, let out a terrifying, pig-like squeal, and are at least the size of small, ferocious dogs.

Promo materials breathlessly assert, by the way, that the monsters are actual creatures that American forces in the Middle East “have had to deal with for decades.” Americans have been making regular military forays in the Middle East for decades, but the rest is folklore, tall tales and doctored photos. Not that it matters much as they are just the icky creatures to set up the slaughter, little lumps of CGI that contrast so badly with the sets that Corman loyalists will long for the days of puppets and wires.

A thumping bass lets us know that the kids are here. These are the requisite college kids screaming “lets party” and getting ready for some sort of alcohol and sex-fueled romp in the desert (their supposed to be kids even though they look like they’re pushing thirty). Guess what happens to them? Yes, faces eaten off and with great dispatch.

Corman’s always been known for injecting some fairly simplistic social commentary into his films. Interestingly this flick has plenty of references to Corman’s past tendency to portray monstrous threats as secret government projects or military-industrial experiments gone bad.

But, and this is one of the places I missed the Corman touch, no subversive stories are being told in all the silliness. It really is just a story of a threat from the outside that must be defeated. The message in the end is that trust in the military and national unity can overcome the foreigners, I mean the spiders. In other words, it’s a lot like those creature features and alien invasion stories from the ’50s that Corman both borrowed from and repurposed with a countercultural message.

The rest of the film features a predictable massacre of annoying townspeople by the creepy crawlies. We switch back and forth from a group of students trapped in a house to a group of allegories (a soldier, a cop, a small business owner, a nuclear family, two capitalists a couple of hipsters) trapped first in a diner and then in some kind of factory. Nobody’s cell phone works.

The effects are as loud and obnoxious as you might expect and the audio performs headache-inducingly well. The sound effects, combined with the soundtrack, contribute to making this film barely watchable. Obviously you don’t expect a John Williams score for an outing such as this. On the other hand, you don’t expect a bass guitar attempting to replicate the sound of barbed wire scrapping across a tin roof, pumped up by a massive synth assault. For the appearance of the creatures, the folks in audio have mixed for us a fingernails-on-chalkboard screech.

In the end, the besieged band of real Americans charges out to face this threat from the Middle East. The whole thing’s an infomercial for American empire and wraps up in not only predictable, but is really grindingly unfun. A child in danger, assorted appeals to a mishmash of sentiments about family and masculinity, a hail of gunfire and, at last, it’s over, thankfully.

Its possible to imagine this movie as a Saturday afternoon diversion for someone flipping channels. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would purchase this DVD. I would almost like to know more about the people who will, as they would seem to represent an interesting, and possibly insoluble, sociological problem.

If you are used to Corman’s wild subversive craziness, the way his best films reveled in their own absurdity, this leaden affair will disappoint in the extreme. There are no special features of any sort, so even Corman completists wont find anything alluring about the disc. So let me be clear: just stay away.

RATING 1 / 10