Fifteen Years Later, “Eight Legged Freaks” Deserves To Be Celebrated

Ellory Elkayem’s “Eight Legged Freaks” came out during a horrendous time. First it was a limited release, unleashed around the time another Spider oriented movie was breaking box office records, and it was released during a time where audiences were still bruised from 9/11 and weren’t too keen on welcoming horror comedies in to their lives quite yet. It’s a shame since “Eight Legged Freaks” is a pitch perfect horror comedy that celebrates everything from B movies, slasher movies, disaster movies, and the classic monster movies like “Them!” and “Mosquito.” Ellory Elkayem based a lot of “Eight Legged Freaks” on his short film “Larger Than Life,” which is very much in the spirit of what we see on the big screen. It is a black and white ode to the sixties monster movies with Elkayem conjuring up what’s so gross and icky about spiders. I originally saw “Larger than Life” on television in 2000 when it premiered on the short film television series “Exposure” on the Sci-Fi Channel here in America.

The short film from Elkayem became a significant memory in my mind and Elkayem managed to realize it in to a rather fantastic monster movie in its own right.  “Eight Legged Freaks” is a simple but truly fantastic horror comedy that doesn’t over complicate itself nor take itself seriously at all. Whenever it’s on cable I always find myself drifting to it and sitting through the entirety laughing and giggling through most of it. Elkayem assembles an interesting cast to deliver what is one of the more raucous spider attack movies since “Arachnophobia.”

No matter what you feel about spiders, you’ll have a hard time not getting grossed out at giant spiders besieging hapless town folks in Prosperity mall, or a giant spider yanking a poor house cat in to a hole in a wall. There’s also a very ghoulish moment where two characters are stuck in the town’s abandoned mines and accidentally walk in on the queen spider that proceeds to jab her piercer in to poor victim and suck out his innards as he screams in agony.

What makes “Eight Legged Freaks” so fantastic though is that, though the movie sports some significant male presence (including David Arquette in a mostly straight faced role as the film’s inadvertent hero Chris), the movie supplies a very strong array of female characters and heroines, all of whom either save the day or keep a cool head. While most of the men in the movie are running away and fleeing for their lives in the face of a giant spider, Kari Wuhrer as town sheriff Samantha, stands in front of the gradually closing mall shooting down spiders left and right while pretty much everyone flees. While Samantha is a single mother still reeling from the death of her husband, she is not a woman who needs help at all. Another scene finds her daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johannson) being wrapped in webbing by a giant spider that sneaks in to her room.

As Chris and Samantha’s son Mike fail to fend off the intruder, Samantha takes it upon herself to shatter her gun cabinet and blow the spider to pieces with her shotgun. If that’s not enough Samantha’s daughter Ashley is also a young girl incapable of depending on men for help, often chasing after her younger brother and even fends off an aggressive attack by her boyfriend with a tazer right in his crotch. To contribute to the theme of female empowerment, the way Mike is able to completely disorient one of the giant predators is by spraying its face with perfume.

“Eight Legged Freaks” is so criminally under appreciated and manages to channel the schlock of the sixties without feeling tedious or dull. It moves at a rapid pace, garners a ton of memorable moments, and even does a good job making its spider foes absolutely terrifying while also injecting a dose of silliness. The spiders all seem to communicate with high pitched jabbering to one another that sounds like speech, and scream in horror whenever they’re killed or attacked by their intended prey.

The cast all around are fantastic with Arquette playing a believable hero, Doug E. Doug garnering a ton of laugher as the town’s resident conspiracy theorist who reacts to the spiders in about as much delirious panic as you’d expect. There’s also Rick Overton as Samantha’s lumbering but very competent deputy. The stand outs thought are Scarlett Johannson as Samantha’s inadvertent hero daughter Alex, the very intelligent Mike who helps overcome the spiders with his knowledge of their species. Finally, there’s Kari Wuhrer who is mostly accustomed to playing vivacious sex bombs in film, who plays a conservative mother and gun toting heroine who is almost always on the verge of sacrificing herself to help others. Wuhrer’s performance is very restrained and it’s the very tight knit performance that ironically makes Samantha so sexy.

“Eight Legged Freaks” packs in slight social commentary about developing and steam rolling small towns for the sake of corporations, and the disastrous results of pollution that transforms a farm of spiders in to a horde of truck sized predators. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Leon Rippy as the town’s villainous mayor Wade, and Tom Noonan who has a welcome walk on role. Despite the fact that pretty much everyone are releasing giant bug movies these days, “Eight Legged Freaks” deserves to be celebrated again and given its due for being so ahead of its time. Despite its age the special effects are still quite solid, and writers Elkayem and Jesse Alexander manage to slip in a very solid narrative that allows for a logical and fascinating reason to giant spiders invading a small desert town.

Elkayem makes due with a smaller budget, allowing for a lot of great moments of inherent terror and hysterical comedy. Some of my favorite scenes include Sam’s deputy stuck in his car with a giant tarantula mounting above him, and the big climactic battle in the mall. I love how Elkayem undercuts out expectations as a giant spider smashes through the mall’s gates. As the town readies their weapons preparing to fight it, it backs off allowing an army of thousands of smaller spiders to raid the area, effectively destroying the human strong hold. Despite the advertising’s best efforts to draw in crowds for alternative movies, America was just too wrapped up in Spider-Man finally coming to the big screen by way of another cult director Sam Raimi.

I fondly remember the trailer featuring Samantha’s deputy muttering “It’s a spider, man.” Were it not for the limited movie theaters in my area, I surely would have turned out to see Elkayem’s movie in the theater. Fifteen years later, “Eight Legged Freaks” maintains a lot of its appeal and camp value. There’s simply no excuse for Elkayem’s movie still being on a very ancient barebones DVD release. In an age where audiences and studios are celebrating films of all kinds and niches, “Eight Legged Freaks” is rightfully deserving of a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray.

When you consider that the movie co-stars a pre-fame Scarlett Johannson, the movie could have its appeal for modern audiences that weren’t old enough to appreciate it. This is the golden age of horror comedy to boot, where films like “Zombeavers,” “Big Ass Spider!,” “Lavalantula,” and “Zoombies” are being given to fans gobbling up this kind of escapist horror cinema. “Eight Legged Freaks” is easily one of the best in its sub-genre and deserves to be acknowledged by movie fans of all kinds.

  • J.R. Taylor

    The film also offered a great retro moment in Times Square marketing, with a prominent billboard featuring a 3D spider sculpting.