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Lunatics and Laughter Day 14: Eight-Legged Freaks (2002)

EightDirector: Ellory Elkayem

Writers: Ellory Elkayem, Randy Kornfield, Jesse Alexander

Cast: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug, Rick Overton, Leon Rippy, Matt Czuchry, Tom Noonan, Eileen Ryan

Plot: A highway accident causes a barrel of toxic waste to spill into a reservoir in the little town of Prosperity, Arizona, where the chemicals spread to a spider farm. The owner, Joshua (Tom Noonan) collects contaminated crickets to feed his beasts. A boy named Mike (Scott Terra) stops by for a visit, and Joshua shows him the various species of arachnid in his collection. After Mike leaves, Joshua notices some of his spiders have gotten loose. They suddenly attack and destroy him.

A week later, Chris McCormick (David Arquette) comes back to Prosperity after a decade away. His father owned the town mines, and he’s come home to stand against the mayor who wants to sell all the town property and relocate. Meanwhile Mike’s mother, Sheriff Sam Stroud (Kari Wuhrer), has uncovered the toxic waste barrel. On her way home, she pulls over a group of teenagers on dirt bikes, including her daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johanssen). She takes her home, warning her about her boyfriend Brett (Matt Czuchry), who also happens to be the mayor’s stepson.

At a town meeting Mayor Wade (Tom Rippy) tries to convince the people to sell their property to a company that wants to use their empty mines (to dump waste, but he leaves that part out). Chris insists his father saw a lode of gold in the mine before he died, and punches Wade, who orders Sam to arrest him. Sam, who shares a history with Chris, lets him go.  His aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) mentions that Sam is divorced now, and urges him to tell her the real reason he hated her husband so much he left town.

Sam gives Ashley a stun gun to protect herself while Mike follows spider tracks to the mines, noting that they appear to have grown to enormous size. Hitchhiking home, he’s picked up by Chris, who has been sending miners to look for the lode his father found, at the same time trying to avoid deadly pockets of methane. Mike shows Chris a segment of a huge spider leg he’s found, admitting he fears the spiders are growing and have hurt Joshua. Chris, of course, doesn’t believe him, because “they never believe the kid.” Back in the mine, Chris’s employees are attacked by the giant beasts. Their next attack is on Wade’s ostrich farm, gobbling up birds whole. Local crank radio host Harlan Griffith (Doug E. Doug) starts reporting on stories of pets and other animals being devoured by some sort of creature, which he believes to be an alien.

Ashley, in the desert with Brett, uses the stun gun when he tries to pressure her into sex. She takes his truck and leaves him with his friends, just before the spiders attack. Brett manages to escape into the mines, where he finds several of the miners still alive, webbed into coccoons. Gladys is in the mines as well, through a shaft that opened up into her basement. Chris goes after her, finding an enormous spider leg, and rushes to Sam’s house to talk to Mike. While a puzzled Sam watches, the two of them begin to calculate just how big the spiders are. Down the hall, one of the giants climbs into Ashley’s bedroom. When she screams, Sam and Chris burst into the room and she kills it.

With the phone lines down, Mike suggests they go to Harlan’s radio station and broadcast a warning. They fight their way past the spiders to the station and Sam tells the townspeople to arm themselves, urging them to gather at the mall to make a united stand. With the spiders in force, the people flood the mall and lock themselves in. Their only hope to call for help is Wade’s cell phone, but Chris and Harlan have to climb the antenna on the roof to get a signal. Everyone else raids the mall for weapons. Chris calls the army, but they ignore him, believing it to be a prank call. As he screams at the phone, the spiders begin to punch through the gates protecting the people inside the mall.

The townspeople escape the overrun mall by fleeing into the mines and Chris tries to lead them to an exit. Instead, they find the methane pocket, and Wade and other living people, cocooned to be fed to the queen. Chris tells Sam how to find the way out while he continues to search for Gladys. Before he leaves her, he tries to explain why he left town, but she already knows: his father told her Chris loved her, he knew her husband was cheating on her, but didn’t want to break up her family. She kisses him, tells him to make it up to her later, and they run. Chris finds Gladys, and the vein of gold his father found… but the enormous spider queen is there as well. Afraid to shoot his gun because of the methane, Chris uses advice Mike gave him earlier and spritzes the spider with perfume, driving it back so they can escape. Outside, Sam and Mike fuel the generator that powers the mines, sparking it to life with Ashley’s stun gun. The electricity lights the gas and Chris and Gladys just barely an explosion, which roasts the spiders in the mines, along with the toxic waste Wade had tried to hide, destroying his property in the process. As the cleanup begins, Chris and Sam hold each other, and she tells him she’s glad he came home.

Thoughts: Fear evolves over time, with each generation drawing on the context of its own world to create the things it fears the most: witches in the 17th century, Nazi domination during World War II, trans-fats in the year 2012… but in the 1950s, the big fears were nuclear power and the Soviet Union, which somehow melded in a series of movies where small animals mutated into giant ones and terrorized teenagers and scientists who all smoked pipes. Eight Legged Freaks is a tribute of sorts to that subgenre of the monster movie.

I’m not sure if it says anything about horror/comedies specifically, but looking at David Arquette again certainly brings to mind certain things about Hollywood in general. Just ten years earlier, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arquette was cast as the punk teenager. By Scream in 1996, he was the punk teenager’s older brother. Now, in 2002, he’s the love interest to the punk teenager’s mother. Either the years were not kind to him, or Hollywood has tacitly admitted he was really too old to play those other parts in the first place. (If he made another movie with Scarlett Johanssen today, ten years later, I’d bet you even money he would be her love interest rather than her mother’s. Hollywood is weird.)

The sweet-natured, awkward character he plays here isn’t all that different from his character in the Scream films, but it happens to be the sort of character he plays very well. You show me David Arquette playing kind-hearted and a little dorky, and I’m totally on board. I rather liked Scott Terra as Mike as well. He’s the sort of kid who could easily turn into an obnoxious know-it-all, but he’s balanced much better than that. Instead, he comes across as a particularly young example of the one sane man in a room full of lunatics, and the moment when Chris recognizes that and implores the townspeople to “listen to the kid, for once,” is a good little meta-commentary on horror movies and a nice character moment for them all. It’s only made stronger by the fact that most of the people actually do listen.

The monsters themselves, to be frank, could have looked better. The movie uses a lot of CGI, and not great CGI at that. It really would have served the film much better to use campy puppets or models, truly embracing its B-movie roots. When the spiders start crawling out of a miner’s mouth, all I can see is a man standing there, jaw agape, while someone sitting at a computer Photoshops lots of little spiders all over his face. It’s even worse when the giant spiders attack the kids on dirt bikes. In broad daylight, the effects team can’t even rely on the cover of darkness to hide just how weak the computer animation actually is. On the other hand, the movie does use practical effects to show an ostrich exploding, and there’s literally no way to complain about that.

The bad effects really hurt the overall charm of the film, and there’s a lot of it. The plot has an old-school B-movie feel, while the production values (aside from the CGI) are pretty good. I also give the filmmakers credit for using a variety of different spiders throughout the film. There are dozens of different looks and feels of creature in this movie, and while I don’t have nearly enough ichthyologic knowledge to tell you how accurate any of the spiders are (in either appearance or behavior), they at least made an effort, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies. There are plenty of good comedic moments here too. The scene in the mall, when the townspeople grab baseball bats and pitchforks and crossbows and hockey masks and suit up for war, is a nice sort of statement on small-town fortitude. Sure, there turn out to be a few cowards in the group, but many of them stand and fight true, getting out some good quips and solid action (CGI notwithstanding) in the process.

And composer John Ottman deserves every shred of credit one can muster for making a creepy version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” the core of the movie’s musical score. Every time the strains of that tune begin to play, it’s impossible not to smile.

I really want to love this movie, and there are a lot of parts of it that are wonderfully fun. This is actually a case where I wish they could somehow remake the movie with cheaper special effects. The filmmakers overreached, tried to make an A-movie out of a delightful B-script, and it falls a little flat as a result. I do like this movie, I like it a lot, but if only director Ellory Elkayem had stayed true to the cheesy roots of the film, it could have been a classic.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 9: Arachnophobia (1990)

arachnophobiaDirector: Frank Marshall

Writers: Don Jakoby, Al Williams & Wesley Strick

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Mark L. Taylor, Henry Jones, Peter Jason, James Handy, Roy Brocksmith, Kathy Kinney

Plot: Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) takes photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) with him on a hunt through the Amazon rainforest, hoping to discover new species of insects and arachnids. Manley has been ill, and fights a fever as they march through Venezuela. The search bears fruit – the team discovers a large, highly aggressive spider Atherton has never seen before. When the still-sick Manley goes to bed, a male “General” spider that stowed away in his pack bites him, killing him in seconds. When his body is found, his death is attributed to the fever and he is sent back to the United States, with the spider that bit him hiding inside.

Manley’s body is returned to his family in Canaima, where town mortician Irv Kendall (Roy Brocksmith) opens the box and finds him shriveled up, drained of fluid, and in a state that’s not at all conducive to an open casket. The spider sneaks outside, gets snared by a bird and is carried to the barn of a house where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family are moving in, Ross replacing the retiring town doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). Ross even starts a wine cellar in the basement. When his son discovers a house spider, the arachnophobic Ross has his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) take it to the barn, unaware of the enormous Venezuelan spider hiding in the hay. That night the spiders meet, and mate.

Ross is shocked the next day when Dr. Metcalf tells him he’s decided not to retire after all, crushing Ross, who was supposed to inherit his patients and establish a practice. As he leaves Metcalf’s office he encounters Sheriff Lloyd Parsons (Stuart Pankin) writing him a ticket. He’s rescued by Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), a retired schoolteacher who dislikes Metcalf and is glad to have the option of another doctor. She’s pleased to be Ross’s first patient. Unfortunately, she’s also his only patient.

Mary turns out to be perfectly healthy, and she tries to cheer him by offering to throw a “Welcome to Canaima” party. While he’s at the office, Molly goes to photograph the barn and discovers a gargantuan spider web in the rafters. She misses the huge egg sac that soon looses a new generation of spiders. Over the next few days they spread out, one of them sneaking into Margaret’s house and killing her.

Ross gets more bad news the next day when he finds the wood in his cellar is weak and rotten. It gets worse when he goes to Margaret’s and finds her body. Although most of the town believes Metcalf’s diagnosis of a heart attack, Ross insists on an autopsy, but the Sheriff blocks him. The spiders strike again soon afterwards, killing a high school football player. Metcalf is next, bitten on the toe and dying as his wife sees the spider.

Convinced the deaths are spider-related, Ross calls the closest expert he can find, Atherton, who is skeptical until he realizes Ross is calling from the late Jerry Manley’s hometown. Atherton sends his assistant, Chris Collins (Brian McNamara) to help with the investigation, and joins himself when bites are found on all three victims. Chris manages to capture a live specimen in Margaret’s house for study. Meanwhile town exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) discovers the spiders are immune to his toxins – if not a heavy boot.

Atherton examines the captured spider and determines it’s the hybrid of the Venezuelan spider and a house spider. It has a short lifespan, but the General male no doubt has a queen hiding somewhere that will have the ability to create a new generation capable of reproduction. If they can’t destroy it before her nest hatches, Canaima will fall, then the next town, then the next. Phil, Chris and Delbert map out the attacks and realize the nest is on Ross’s property. Atherton, meanwhile, finds Molly’s photograph of the web and comes to the same conclusion. He arrives first, and is bitten and dead by the time the others arrive. Delbert finds Atherton’s body and pulls out his own “special” blend of toxins to fight the creatures.

Ross and Chris go to the house to try to get his family out. The living room is suddenly filled with thousands of deadly spiders. Everyone but Ross escapes, and he falls through the rotten floor into the cellar, where he finds the egg sac. He starts to douse the sac with wine so he can burn it, but is attacked by the original General male. He manages to burn it just as the sac starts to hatch, but it isn’t dead. Grabbing his nail gun, he fires the torched male into the egg sac, killing it and destroying the rest of them in one strike. In the end, the Jennings return to San Francisco, glad to be back in a world where events are totally under their own control… until the earthquake starts.

Thoughts: Although not remembered as well as many of the other films on this list, Arachnophobia holds a special place in my heart – it’s the first horror/comedy I remember actually seeing in theaters. (Yes, even my beloved Ghostbusters was a video find for me. I may even have seen the cartoon first before I ever saw the movie, I honestly don’t remember.) And no matter how much technology may improve the home theater experience over the years – higher resolution, more DPI (whatever that is) streaming video that also makes popcorn in a variety of flavors, whatever – there will always be an irreproducible charm in going to a theater, sitting in a darkened room with others, and absorbing a fun movie in a community experience. This was such a movie for me.

Arachnophobia falls into the more “serious,” Type-A category of horror/comedy. In fact, the first act of the film, while we’re in Venezuela, has little comedy at all, giving us a prologue that very easily could have led into a straight (albeit somewhat cheesy and overdone) traditional horror film. The comedy comes in once we get back to Canaima, and even then it’s very dry at first. Ross, depressed at only having one patient, hopes that she’ll turn out to be “ravaged by disease,” then moments later (on screen, at least) coolly denies that very wish when she turns out to be in perfect health. For much of the film, the comedy we get is well below the threshold that flips the switch and makes it a legitimate horror/comedy and not simply a lite PG-13 horror film. When that switch finally is flipped, it’s due almost entirely to the injection of the John Goodman character.

Delbert is the one wacky character in the midst of a group that doesn’t really have time to be funny. Once the real situation becomes clear, Daniels and company have to deal with thousands of very fast murderers about the size of a quarter… that’s about as serious a situation as we’ve yet seen in this horror/comedy project, and they don’t really play it for laughs. Delbert is our comic relief, an exaggerated character that borders on the cartoonish. Goodman is a fantastic actor, a wonderful comedian (with dramatic chops that are frequently overlooked), but Delbert actually takes things almost too far a few times. Part of it may simply be familiarity with John Goodman – he’s well-known enough now that it’s hard to see him play the part without just getting a very strong sense of him putting on the character. But at the same time, he’s really an odd man out in this movie. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that’s his role after all, but there are moments where he goes far enough to jolt you out of the scene.

By contrast, Jeff Daniels works well as the sort of small-town everyman (although the Ross Jennings character is, technically, a San Francisco transplant). He does, however, latch on to several stereotypes. If you’re going to do a movie where the monster is a spider, you almost have to make your hero an arachnophobe, and Frank Marshall actually takes him to the ridiculously young age of two to establish the initial childhood trauma. That scene, where he describes a spider assaulting him in the crib, is one of the funnier moments in the earlier part of the movie, in fact. He still keeps his dryness with him, even after the spiders attack. (In the climax, as he tries to pelt the male with wine bottles, he stops himself from using a particularly good vintage). But nothing he does would be funny enough to classify the movie as a comedy, in and of itself, without Goodman tipping the scales.

Director Frank Marshall is much better known for his straight comedies, but he does a decent job here conveying the horror. There are plenty of small touches that add to the horror – slow pans across spider webs and small shadows that twitch and creep … they’re all wonderful moments that will chill you nicely if you’ve got a fear of spiders already. For all the hairy legs and downright chilling movement that a spider brings with it, though, the really scary thing about this movie isn’t what the monster looks like. Most horror films rely on showing you something grotesque or mutating something mundane into an object of terror. Not so much in Arachnophobia. The hybrid spiders, for all the terror they create, don’t look that different from a traditional spider. The fear comes from the fact that these tiny killers – unlike the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – could literally be anywhere. How often do you look under your blankets before you get into bed or peek in your shoes before you put them on? Marshall even manages to work in a twist on the old “wiggling doorknob” routine so prevalent in horror movies – in this version, it’s the swarm of spiders actually pushing through and rattling the knob in the process.

There’s a bit towards the end, while Daniels tries to battle the hiding spider in his cellar, where he’s looking around frantically for a monster that is utterly invisible. It brings to mind every time you’ve ever walked into a spiderweb and started flailing madly, looking like a lunatic to anybody who happens to see you. That’s a really funny moment, when it happens to someone else. But that moment encapsulates the whole movie. In the world Marshall creates, every miniscule nook and cranny of every room could be hiding grim death for anyone unlucky enough to encounter it at the wrong time. If you’re not scared of spiders, that thought could be enough to drive the fear into you.