EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS: You’re Trying to Tell Me That a Giant Spider Ate Gladys?

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) – Directed by Ellory Elkayem – Starring David Arquette, Kari Wührer, Scott Terra, Doug E. Doug, Scarlett Johansson, and Leon Rippy.

If it’s been a long day and I’m tired and maybe a little cranky, if I’m mentally fried from doing too much work and I need to check out for a bit, I toss a movie like EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS into the Blu-ray player.

FREAKS is a surprisingly good little movie that knows it’s a B-movie, acts like a B-movie, but isn’t made with a B effort. It’s a smart script, full of expected thrills and likable characters. It’s not overly complicated but it’s not so simple there aren’t a few pleasant twists and turns. I didn’t plan to watch it this time because I was mentally exhausted, but it sat on my counter for a week or so while I finished up my 12-part examination of The Avengers. I had planned on watching it because it has Scarlett Johansson in it and the original plan of Avengers Month wasn’t to review Avengers 12 different ways, but to review it once and then watch a bunch of movies with the Avengers‘ actors or characters in it. The film was so good, however, that the plans changed and now instead of a month of Avengers-related films, there will only be a handful.

As much fun as it was to write those reviews, by the time I hit the Iron Man reaction, I was pretty much toasted. As a result, EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS ended up being exactly the right film to spin in the player.

The plot is simple enough. Two events pop in the town of Prosperity, Arizona: a barrel of toxic waste ends up in the town reservoir and Chris McCormick (David Arquette) returns home after being away for a decade. The town is nearly bankrupt and the mayor, Wade (Leon Rippy), wants to sell the mines (owned by Chris’ dad) and have the entire town relocate, but Chris isn’t having it. Wade is a shifty dude who convinced the town to invest in ostriches that no one wants to eat and a mall that no one can afford to visit.

Chris left town because he was in love with Sam Stroud (the always gorgeous Kari Wührer), who was married to a guy who was cheating on her. Chris beat the crap out of the guy and bailed on town without telling Sam he was in love with her.

And yes, before we go any further, it’s an entirely predictable plot. You know Sam and Chris are going to end up together, but what’s nice about FREAKS approach to this is that Chris tries to tell her a couple times and can’t get it out. When the film is nearly over and the conflict is at its deepest, Chris is determined to tell her, but Sam stops him and just lays out everything he’s been trying to say in about 5 seconds. It’s little things like this that show you how to make a genre film that ever-so-slightly plays with your expectations.

FREAKS is, as you would expect, a big monster movie. That barrel of toxic waste ends up making all the spiders grow exponentially larger. There’s an exotic spider shop in town for some reason and Sam’s son, Mike (Scott Terra), likes to go over there and hang out with the shopkeeper, Joshua (Tom Noonan). Mike gets out of the shop just before a spider attacks Joshua, who flails around and lets all the spiders out of all the cages.

After that, hilarity ensues.

The spiders start attacking and the townspeople start dying and freaking out. There’s a local pirate radio dude named Harlan (Doug E. Doug) who thinks everything is a government conspiracy. The whole town thinks he’s nuts but they all listen to him.

What makes a film like FREAKS work is that these are good characters in a well-told story executed at a crisp pace. Yeah, there’s a lot of types at play here, but every actor does their job. David Arquette really isn’t leading man material, but his sheepish awkwardness is something the film takes into account. It’s Sam who’s got the traditionally masculine role of being the town sheriff, as well as being a mom to Mike and Ashley (Scarlett Johansson).

Let’s talk about Ms. Johansson since this is Avengers Month and all. In the decade since FREAKS came out she’s become a legit superstar. She’s the fodder for tabloids, been married and divorced Hollywood style, and has become the darling of Woody Allen and had a starring role in one of the biggest movies of all time. She’s an actress that I really don’t quite get – sometimes, I think she’s really effective and others … not so much.

I saw FREAKS in the theater back in 2002 and Scarlett Johansson did not make a single impression on me that I can remember. She’s a kid here, of course, and in a small role, so there’s no reason she should have left an impression – which is good, because there’s just nothing remarkable here. Johansson isn’t bad, but there’s nothing her to suggest the kind of success she’s had. In fact, if I had to guess which kid would have had the better career, I’d have gone with Terra.

The town gets overrun with massive spiders and everyone runs to the mall for the final showdown. It’s a fun sequence with the townsfolk battling the giant spiders that come pouring into the mall. They get chased down into the mines and come across the big queen spider … and yeah, it’s a monster movie. Done really well. I wish I’d had Arachnophobia to toss into the player – and that’s a sign that FREAKS did it’s job because after watching one spider movie I was ready to watch another one.

There’s a really nice subplot with Chris and Mike; Mike mentions early on how no one ever listens to the kid in these situations, so Chris makes a point to listen to the kid. It’s a nice touch, and FREAKS does a really good job with these smaller subplots – Chris and Mike, Ashley and her boyfriend, Wade and his ostriches … FREAKS sets them up, does a little something with them, and then lets them sit for a bit before coming back to them one last time. It’s really simple, really effective storytelling that the film doesn’t need to do, and so it’s easy to appreciate that it does.

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS is a good time and it’s the kind of film that reminds me why I like writing stories. There’s nothing here that’s going to change the world, but it will certainly give you an entertaining 90 minutes.