Originality ain’t on the menu, but there’s never a dull moment in the giant spider invasion comic chiller “Eight Legged Freaks.” Amplifying premise of New Zealand born director Ellory Elkayem’s short “Larger Than Life,” this update of 1950s drive-in sci-fiers finds the right balance between icky, funny and scary, with sheer energy compensating for a script that could have used more parodic panache. Repping pretty much just what the average 12-year-old boy wants from for his multiplex dollars, pic likely won’t last long amidst more expensive, starry summer blockbusters. But its initial cash gush will be duly echoed by healthy ancillary sales in all territories.
Scenario by Elkayem and Jesse Alexander (also a feature debutante) makes no bones about excavating the most basic genre narrative conventions, with tongue half in-cheek but no particularly fresh twists. A trucker swerving to miss a rabbit on the highway drops a barrell full o’ toxic waste which tumbles into a pond in the depressed mining town of Prosperity, Ariz. This creates mutant crickets that are fed to some 100 specimens at a local eccentric’s roadside “Exotic Spider Farm.”
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Uh-oh.While pets and bit players (including the obligatory Early Sacrificial Black Guy) get offed, prodigal son Chris McCormick (David Arquette) — gone since he busted the schnozz of the cheatin’ ex-husband of his unrequited love object, sexy-tough Sheriff Sam (Kari Wuhrer) — returns to the town to protest the impending sale of his late father’s supposedly tapped-out gold mine. Latter deal is suspect, mostly because it’s being pushed by corrupt Mayor Wade (Leon Rippy), whose son Bret (Matt Czuchry) dates Sam’s rebellious teenage daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johansson).
Other leading personalities, all drawn in archetypal terms, include the science-nerd boy who suspects danger before anyone else (Scott Terra in owlish Harry Potter glasses); local pirate radio broadcaster/conspiracy theorist Harlan (Doug E. Doug), and a dopey deputy (Rick Overton).
All hell officially breaks loose when the by-now-supersized spiders attack Bret and his dirt-biking buddies. These critters are big as SUVs, and much faster — they can jump 50 feet in one bound. Unhappy campers are pounced, web-woven, and taken back to the gargantuan queen spider’s mineshaft lair.
As the creepy crawlers hit downtown, citizens are advised via Harlan’s radio station — all other communications having been knocked out — to head for the mall. There, the few survivors barricade themselves in. Needless to say, a very big ka-boom (climactic shot of which reps pic’s only poor visual effect) is the only thing that can save them.
“Freaks” suffers from a paucity of good lines (best jokes are sight gags) and situational wit, given the otherwise successful tone of genre homage-cum-satire. Characters that are amusing in concept never quite clang the bell in scripted execution. Still, pic certainly entertains in an edge-of-your-seat manner that’s humorously thrilling rather than unpleasant or too gross (a la “Starship Troopers”). Gore is minimized, and fantastical spider dig-fx is terrific.
While writing isn’t half so inspired as 1990’s like-spirited “Tremors” in terms of eccentric desert Americana portraiture, cast is game. A tad disappointingly, however, Arquette doesn’t really snap tether until the last reel.
Whole package is smartly turned, with especially sharp input from editor David J. Siegel. John Ottman’s conventional if effective orchestral score might have capitalized further on pic’s potential for genre ribbage.