Toxic waste creates giant spiders in Arizona. People are attacked, cobweb-cocooned, liquidised and eaten. Prodigal son Chris McCormack and Sheriff Sam Parker, advised by the latter's spider-obsessed brat, rally survivors. And so the townsfolk fight back guns, chainsaws, perfume, methane, a mobile phone and raw courage.
No coming attraction of 2002 has created as much buzz as the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks (previously known as Arach Attack), with its excellent tag-line, "Do you hate spiders? Do you really hate spiders? Well, they don't like you either!" We're happy to report that the film delivers everything the promo promised, sneaking in under the radar and emerging as the best unpretentious genre movie in many a month.
While the similarly-themed Arachnophobia stuck too close to reality with its regular-sized villains, this goes the whole hog by spilling enough toxic waste to bulk up the spiders to sizes ranging from four to 20 feet across. In the 1950s, classic B-movies like Them! and Tarantula made big bugs a science-fiction staple, capitalising on our near-universal queasiness about creatures with more eyes and legs than seem reasonable. Those quickies proved that the feeblest rubber puppets rampaging in a sandbox could raise a healthy chill, so it's surprising it took so long to revisit the they're-crawling-to-get-you sub-genre with state-of-the-art effects.
Ellory Elkayem, insect-obsessed auteur of the short parody, Larger Than Life, and the cockroach quickie, They Nest, respects the traditions of the genre in everything from setting (a western town about to go bankrupt), to character type (a Harry Potter-like kid who knows grown-ups won't believe his monster-spider stories). The plot also follows the expected lines an escalation of attacks as the mutated spiders strike first in the desert by day, then invade the town by night, driving the survivors into a failing mall and a played-out gold mine.
Perhaps not as smartly scripted as the similarly retro Alligator or Tremors, this is still a well-put-together film, showing that the Dean Devlin-Roland Emmerich team is capable of much better monster stuff than Godzilla, if they call in more screwball collaborators.
The opening reel has a fine cameo from Tom (The Tooth Fairy) Noonan as the creepy spider-farmer, while the leads are actors you wouldn't necessarily want to see in a picture without giant spider co-stars but are still painless company for the duration. Unassuming hero Arquette and cute sheriff Wuhrer rise to the occasion by providing a nicely thrown-away romantic sub-plot in between the cobweb crises. Then there's sprightly ham from Leon Rippy, Doug E. Doug and Scarlett Johansson in the traditional roles of mayor-whose-fault-it-all-is, paranoid-shock-jock-who-turns-out-to-be-right and stun-gun-wielding-teen-princess.
But this isn't a people movie. It's a spider movie, and its web-spinners are on great form. Noonan's lecture on arachnid behaviour sets up effects sequences the phobic won't abide, but which will delight others. A horde of giant, leaping spiders pursue teenagers on dirt-bikes, trapdoor spiders suck townsfolk under the street, human victims are liquidised, and hordes of the things crawl over the roof as Arquette tries to get a mobile phone signal.
The mostly-CGI spiders work well on screen, splatting with satisfying bursts of green goo, extending pipe-cleaner legs around an old codger's armchair, cocooning grannies and generally exciting yelps of pleasurable revulsion whenever they scuttle on screen. With a witty score that keeps playing variations on Itsy Bitsy Spider and a title likely to enter the language, this is a real scream from beginning to end.
If you only see one mutated spider movie this summer, youll be missing a treat. Having learnt to respect Peter Parkers inner arachnid, check out Freaks and get ready to squash the little buggers.