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(2002) (David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer) (PG-13)

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Comedy/Horror: The residents of a small town try to elude and survive the attacks of hordes of giant, mutant spiders.
In the town of Prosperity, Arizona, Sam Parker (KARI WUHRER) is the local sheriff who's trying to raise her two kids - teen rebel Ashley (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) and her younger brother and spider freak Mike (SCOTT TERRA) - by herself while maintaining the law with Deputy Pete Willis (RICK OVERTON).

She isn't happy that Ashley's dating Bret (MATT CZUCHRY), the motorbike riding son of the town's mayor, Wade (LEON RIPPY). The resident of Prosperity - including conspiracy minded radio broadcaster Harlan Griffith (DOUG E. DOUG) -- aren't happy with Wade since the town and its various failed projects - such as the huge indoor shopping mall - have not resulted in what its name suggests.

Wade's latest get rich quick schemes aren't going over that well either. The first involves getting everyone to sell their property to a buyer who has plans for their land, but many are against that including Chris McCormick (DAVID ARQUETTE) who's returned to his hometown. He's inherited his late father's now abandoned mining operations and doesn't want to sell. Rather, his intention is to let Sam know how he really feels about her after a ten-year absence.

Wade's other plan has more disastrous effects. It seems he's been accepting payment for allowing toxic materials to be stored in those mines. When one of the barrels of that waste accidentally falls from a truck en route, it ends up contaminating a nearby pond. A local exotic spider farmer then unknowingly feeds contaminated crickets to his arachnids, resulting in them suddenly and quickly growing to huge sizes.

Once loose, they continue to grow and then threaten the lives of everyone in Prosperity who do what they must to defend themselves and avoid the mutant spiders that eventually overrun their remote town.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Although it's not a true phobia as my reaction depends on the size, species and degree of surprise when encountering them, I'll admit to getting that "oogy, creeped out" feeling when around certain spiders. I realize the reaction is not exactly rational (although many share it), but know that it stems from growing up amidst black widow spiders and probably repeatedly being warned to avoid them.

For some, such reactions and full-blown phobias transfer from the real thing to photos, nature documentaries and/or TV shows and films that feature them as they are or as threatening "monsters." For some reason, I've never had such a reaction - particularly regarding the latter appearances - and that's held true for the latest such film, "Eight Legged Freaks."

To be fair, it's clearly not trying to be a scary film like "Aliens" or even a satirical gross out fest like "Starship Troopers," although it certainly hopes to play a bit with and from some viewers' innate fears of such arachnids.

Instead, the film - with tongue firmly planted in cheek - is trying to go full-bore into camp territory and at times it entertainingly succeeds at just that. Making such a film - or at least a good one - isn't as easy as it might seem Instead, it's as difficult or more as making a scary one since humor is one of the hardest forms of storytelling elements to pull off.

Although various sci-fi monster movies from the 1950s are now considered campy classics, they weren't intentionally designed that way. Instead, their overwrought melodrama and earnest but silly seriousness have turned them into such viewer favorites. We really haven't had an excellent, full-fledged campy monster flick since 1990's "Tremors," and I had my fingers crossed that this might turn out to be another one.

Alas, that's not the case. While it occasionally hits the mark and offers some silly and decidedly over the top fun, it eventually succumbs to its repetitive nature and under performing script that starts out good but ultimately runs out of both steam and ideas.

The advantage of such a film of this genre is that it can obviously get away with stiff acting, stilted dialogue and other "B" movie conventions since that's what it's lovingly trying to poke fun at. For a while, that and all of the standard 1950s monster movie elements - concocted by director and co-writer Ellory Elkayem (making his feature film debut) and co-screenwriter Jesse Alexander (also making his debut) - transpire in an amusing fashion. Accordingly, most of the spider scares, encounters and attacks play out in a funhouse sort of way rather than that of a film trying to be taken seriously and/or scare the pants off its viewers.

The spider effects - courtesy of visual effects supervisor Karen E. Goulekas ("Spider Man," "True Lies") - look good but purposefully have a fake quality to them in order to add to the cheesy effect. The creeping, jumping and scurrying critters also make gleeful sounds from time to time when not oozing green goo when shot or otherwise entertainingly being exterminated.

Yet, a little of them and their chasing and attacking humans goes a long way and the repetitive nature of such mayhem eventually begins to bleed some of the film's momentum. The picture certainly doesn't have the fun plot setup, twists and complications that made "Tremors" so original, entertaining and enjoyable to behold.

Part of what made that film so much fun was the fact that we barely saw the odd, worm-like creatures that lurked beneath the ground and reacted to vibrations and foot or vehicle traffic, thus necessitating the need to stay off the ground as much as possible.

Not enough similar limitations are present to make this film as giddily exhilarating and the filmmakers don't take full advantage of the shopping mall moments that are obviously homage-based shades of "Dawn of the Dead" and/or "Gremlins."

As far as the acting is concerned, the performances are essentially equal to what's expected for a purposefully over the top film such as this. Even so, the likes of David Arquette ("See Spot Run," "3000 Miles to Graceland"), Kari Wuhrer ("Thinner," "Anaconda"), Scarlett Johansson ("Ghost World," "The Horse Whisperer") and Doug E. Doug ("That Darn Cat," "Operation Dumbo Drop") make the most of the material that obviously contains very little character development.

Neither as giddy fun as "Tremors" nor the slickly produced satire of "Mars Attacks!" this popcorn flick promises little from an artistic standpoint but a decent time from a pure entertainment one and delivers a fair amount of just that. In doing so, it possesses enough goofy camp elements to make it worth a matinee showing, video rental or cable TV offering where it's bound to become a perpetual repeat show. While it could have been better, "Eight Legged Freaks" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 15, 2002 / Posted July 17, 2002

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