Eight Legged Freaks
Creepy crawlers created by computer.
By Patrick Reed

"I don't think these new sirens are gonna cut it."

With the preponderance of mindless cine-junk that recurs every summer movie season, it's really hard to pinpoint an authentic "B-movie" any more. In the true-to-form, 1950s sense of the term, a B-movie's plot was just a flimsy framework for a ninety-minute dose of base emotion, meaning: action, romance, fear, and, in case of a so-called "creature feature," revulsion and/or fascination at the creature(s) in question. Forget any pretensions to art.

A true B-movie aims for sheer popcorn escapism. Beginning with the ascent of Lucas and Spielberg in the 70s, the B-movie aesthetic became standard operating procedure for nearly every Jurassic-brained summer movie, no matter how reputable the director, stars, and budget. Still, there exists to this day a lower rung of releases as well, the true modern progeny of King Kong, The Blob, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Such "true Bs" feature slimmer expense accounts and cut-rate lead performers (often newcomers, with the occasional slumming star), as well as a tendency for tongue-in-cheek humor (John Sayles scripted two of the best in the late 70s, Piranha and Alligator). Occasionally, one of these lesser lights breaks through and earns enough to spawn a sequel: think The Mummy, or going back a ways, Gremlins. Some are guilty pleasures of the "so bad it's good" variety: Anaconda, or, maybe, Congo-to each his/her own. Others suck: Deep Blue Sea, for example, or wellCongo is indefensible, really.

Eight Legged Freaks is a pure "B" creation, and judged as such, it's of middling quality. Faced with a suitably preposterous opponent in the current midsummer marketplace (Reign of Fire), Eight Legged's promo poster forewarns filmgoers by boasting that it arrives "from the producers of Independence Day and Godzilla," two of the biggest and most stupid, B-movie blockbusters of the 90s. This tale of giant spiders run amok in the desert Southwest is sort of a combination of Tremors and Arachnophobia, to cite two creature features from a decade or so ago -but even less ambitious, if that's possible. With a motley cast of actors and a barely serviceable script, Eight Legged Freaks exists primarily as a showcase for its special-effects crew, who are bestowed with the task of computer-generating as many spiders as possible into each and every frame of celluloid.

The plot is 100 percent recycled from countless predecessors; only the names have changed. A remote town called Prosperity, Arizona is facing hard times, as its abandoned gold mine and desolate shopping mall indicate. The mayor (Leon Rippy) is secretly lining his pockets by storing hazardous waste in the mineuntil a chemical spill seeps onto a spider-collector's property. You know the rest. The wayward son of the gold miner (David Arquette) returns just in time to battle the mutated arachnids, assisted by Prosperity's single-mom sheriff (Kari Wurher), her bumbling deputy (Rick Overton), a paranoid local ham radio operator (Doug E. Doug), and the sheriff's children (Scarlett Johansson and Scott Terra).

If most of the actors aren't initially recognizable, rest assured that you've seen them all before, in TV and film bit parts here and there. David Arquette reprises his bashful good-guy character from the Scream movies, and Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson has the bored-teen act down pat, but more frightening than any of Eight-Legged's creepy-crawlers is the casting of late-80s MTV-babe Kari Wurher as a mother of two teenagers-feeling old, original Remote Control watchers? While the script aspires for as many laughs as screams-and scores a modicum of both-once the giant spiders are fully revealed Eight Legged Freaks becomes, like previous true-Bs Starship Troopers (sci-fi sector) and From Dusk Till Dawn (vampire division), a rather rote slaughterfest, albeit one sanitized for a PG-13 audience.

As for the film's raison d'être, like so much computer-generated effects these days, the spiders appear menacing and realistic in some scenes and simply silly in others. A daytime arac-attack on a bunch of motorcycle hot-rods looks super-imposed; some subsequent nocturnal confrontations feature a giant tarantula and are more effective. Eight Legged Freaks also succumbs to the same CGI flaw that has afflicted recent action films ranging from the classy (Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) to the tedious (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace): the overpopulation blunder. Attention, creative geniuses: exponentially increasing the number of opponents in the scene eliminates nearly all traces of fear and suspense; it rarely fails to de-personalize. What is your goal, anyway? To turn all action movies, B-movie or otherwise, into passionless shoot-em-outs, into video games? Ummquestion withdrawn.