The problem with “Eight-Legged Freaks,” the 2002 summer blockbuster that wasn’t, is that is plays like a Mad Magazine parody of Robot Chicken’s parody of Joe Dante’s parody of an old 1950’s B-movie. This is the Dean Devlin-produced giant arachnid romp that sports great special effects but feels like such an overly-jokey spoof of itself, we never get a sense of danger or anything real at stake. Everything here is so firmly a reflection of what came before it and the whole thing is so clearly intended as an elaborate goof, there’s no one to root for except the giant spiders.
The story is so by-the-book, you can count off the movies being lifted (sorry, being paid “homage” to). In the town of Prosperity, a tight knit community is angry that most of the town’s funds been sunk into a poorly considered, barely attended mall. The local sheriff (played by B-movie veteran Kari Wuhrer) struggles to keep the peace and raise her teen daughter (Scarlett Johansson, just one movie away from “Lost in Translation”). When the long-gone prodigal son (played by David Arquette) returns, he shows up just in time to battle a newly unleashed nest of giant spiders, who web and suck everyone in Prosperity dry.
Let’s talk about the population of Prosperity: you’ve got the token African-American, played by Doug E. Doug, who is the local all-night paranoia radio talk show host to an audience of none. There’s also the actual comic relief, the local Deputy. He’s played by Rick Overton, who is visibly trying too hard (a problem he shares with the film itself). Everyone is either a stock character, a cliché, a stereotype or all of those things at once.
The obvious comparison to this movie is “Arachnophobia,” which owed a great deal to “Jaws.” Yet, let’s not forget that “Arachnophobia” centered around a great Jeff Daniels turn, as his town doctor was gravely afraid of spiders (a fear many in the audience shared with him). Although the supporting characters in that movie were nods to B-movie country folk, they were developed and played with conviction. Only John Goodman’s quirky exterminator was played for intentional laughs. Although PG-13, “Arachnophobia” is potently scary and takes its premise seriously. In “Eight Legged Freaks,” everyone seems in on the joke and it comes across as a condescending wink-wink to the audience. The chief offender is Overton, clearly trying to be for this movie what Goodman was for “Arachnophobia.” He has the most groan-worthy line: “It’s a spider, man!”,” a reference to the competing ’02 summer attraction, which stomped on this movie like a Nike on an ant.
The director is Ellory Elkayem, whose 13-minute short film from 1998, “Larger Than Life,” was the inspiration for this large-scale adaptation. Elkayem knows his monster movies but fails to make this his own. There are so many elements clearly borrowed from “The Blob,” “Aliens,” “Tremors,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Arachnophobia,” it’s more of a tribute to Coming Attractions monster movie trailers than an actual creature feature. The best sequence here, by far, is when a team of bikers find themselves pursued by a gang of jumping, pouncing spiders. It’s an exhilarating visual that resembles a young boy’s fiendish fantasy or an E.C. horror comics cover.
There are also little moments that shine, like when Arquette finally tells Wuhrer the one thing that’s been on his mind the entire film and she responds to it in an abrupt, practical way. There’s also the funny moment where Arquette uses a certain scent to keep a giant spider from eating him.
Initially, Arquette seems too dialed down to be the lead. By the time he’s climbing a tower, firing off a shotgun and screaming the title, it’s clear that he was just warming up and is the right man for this movie. If only the screenplay was on the level of the special effects. From the introduction of Tom Noonan cast as a mad scientist to the closing shot, everything here is too obvious and old hat. When the population of Prosperity decreases rapidly in the big climax, there should be an emotional reaction to all the liveliness but there’s none. That’s also my entire experience of sitting through “Eight Legged Freaks,” which is never dull and features icky monsters but is too pleased with itself to generate anything more than a muted response. This should have left us running from the theater shrieking (or, as they say in the old trailers, “YOU”LL SHRIEK WITH TERROR!”). Not this time.