The first sight you see in this movie about killer spiders, toxic waste, the Arizona desert, and a cute white couple who apparently need a life-threatening crisis to be able to declare their love, is a black man’s lips, in extreme close-up. You’re listening to Harlan (Doug E. Doug), local radio talker, describing fear: it’s when you “feel your heart beating in your chest so intensely, you can’t breathe.”
It’s a good bet that you won’t be feeling quite this level of terror, since you’re watching a movie called Eight Legged Freaks, the we-love-’50s-giant bug-movies homage by Independence Day and Godzilla makers, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, helped here by producer Bruce Berman and director Ellory Elkayem. Lovingly spoofy and short on original ideas, the film delivers what you’d expect: web-spinning monsters, plucky heroes, pickup trucks, lots of anonymous bodies snatched. With all these clichis in attendance, you have to wonder, as Harlan puts it, “What is this fine and enlightened brother doing in this godforsaken landscape?” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither he nor the movie ever answers this question.)
Specifically, Harlan means Prosperity, Arizona, a town on the verge of economic collapse because the mines are closed down and no one does much except smoke cigarettes and hang out at the diner. Harlan, who broadcasts from a house-trailer out in the middle of nowhere, rants on about aliens invading the earth and conducting anal probes. His listeners consider him a pleasant distraction and essentially leave him on all day and night (it’s not like there are a lot of choices on the dial), but Harlan — playing some composite of Ernie Hudson/Orlando Jones here — believes what he says, and, don’t you know, he will be proved right. Sort of.
The creatures inundating Prosperity are man-made, as they tend to be in such movies, specifically, giant spiders cooked up when they’re infected by toxic waste in the water. Still, they aren’t the standard, slow-stalking furry mothers you’ve seen in Them!, one of this film’s obvious inspirations. They are “exotic,” part of a collection amassed by a lonely spider fanatic just outside of town (Tom Noonan), and so include trap-door spiders (who quite literally grab prey from beneath the earth), tarantulas, spitting spiders, orb weavers (single, very large female surrounded by worker males), and jumping spiders (who embark on a great little set piece, jumping after a bunch of kids on dirt-bikes).
Likely, you haven’t heard of these many types of spiders, but no matter. The film provides a young science geek, Mike (Scott Terra), to point out names of types and details of behavior, so you can keep track if you’re inclined. As it happens, Mike’s mom is the sheriff, Sam (Kari Wuhrer), which means she has access to a cache of firearms, which will come in handy when it comes time to deliver up the splat and goo factor. Mike is a super-achieving kid, his mom is a good cop, and the third family member, Ashley (Scarlett Johansson), is a sulkily sexy teen who annoys her mother by imitating her own youthful conduct, for instance riding dirt bikes with pretty-boy Brett (Matt Czuchry). What’s wrong with this picture? Why, they need a father figure, of course.
Enter Chris (David Arquette), son of the town’s now deceased respected citizen and mine owner. Chris has been away for some 15 years, long enough that his Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) doesn’t recognize him when he first arrives. He’s back to make prove his dad’s claim that the mines house some kind of vein, and more importantly, he’s always loved Sam, and has returned to tell her so, if he can only get up his nerve. Fate intervenes, or more precisely, digitally effected jumping spiders intervene, and well, Chris looks so irresistible when he’s been cocooned by a spitting spider, Sam begins to appreciate his intentions.
Eight Legged Freaks doesn’t aspire to much, not even the middling heights of wit achieved by Scream. The satire is weak, the spiders are satisfactory, reminders of the superior Tremors are everywhere. (That said, Arquette and Doug do their darnedest to keep the thing moving.) Once the spiders start killing people, the situation deteriorates quickly. Most of the population is eradicated; this includes dogs, kitties, old men, and ostriches, so don’t come here looking for the puppy whose improbable survival inspires oohs and aahs. The spiders are suddenly everywhere — inside dry walls, on rooftops, popping up from manhole covers. It takes Chris and Sam a few minutes to catch up (during which they do the mouth-agape, frozen-in-your-tracks pose, while spiders loom), but soon they’re planning best strike positions and looking respectfully to the expert Mike for advice (for example, being sensitive to smell, spiders are “confused” by perfume: somehow, this becomes useful).
The familial-unit-in-the-making decides to gather the remaining townsfolk at the mall, because this allows for various utensils-as-weapons gags and crowds of victims huddled in a tight space. Because the spiders are somehow ingenious enough to kill the phone lines, Chris and Sam must make their emergency announcement to Prosperity via Harlan’s radio station. Their arrival alarms him no end — not only is The Man appropriating his airwaves, but That Man is also bringing really bad news. The invasion has begun. And what is he doing there, anyway?