Funny, gross and packed with state-of-the-Web digital effects, "Eight Legged Freaks" is a comedy horror movie about rampaging giant spiders that starts like a house afire and then suffers an imagination burnout.
For the first half, the jokes snap, the characters click and the digitized views of huge, hopping spiders pursuing hapless humans through the besieged town of Prosperity, Ariz. -- like sly-eyed hero Chris (David Arquette) and stalwart heroine Sheriff Sam (Kari Wuhrer) -- are loonily amusing. Then the whole movie suddenly turns stale.
By the end, Prosperity has been overrun with the jumping arachnids, conspiracy freak outlaw broadcaster Harlan (Doug E. Doug) has been driven from his trailer station, Sam's daughter Ashley (Scarlet Johansson) and son Mike (Scott Terra) are fleeing with mama, devious local entrepreneur/exploiter and mall-owner Wade (Leon Rippy) is running like a cowardly dog, and all the humans left alive are trapped in Wade's mall and the methane mines beneath it. And the movie has lost all its surprise.
We may still be half-entertained, but we've seen it all before -- sometimes with rampaging frogs, zombies or blobs but mostly with the same plot.
First-time New Zealand-born writer-director Ellory Elkayem (who adapted this feature from his highly praised 1998 short "Larger Than Life") not only has a wacky name, he has a wacky, fervid style and jokey temperament that combine to grip our attention at first. But he can't maintain the mood or the pace, and his actors don't have enough new wrinkles or good lines -- even if the movie keeps piling on the gore all around them.
"Eight Legged Freaks" pales next to 1990's "Arachnophobia" but it easily outclasses that bad-movie legend "The Giant Spider Invasion," "Earth vs. The Spider" and, to stretch a point, 1955's B-classic "Tarantula."
But giant spider movies are not one of the great movie genres. And however many screaming teenagers it produces at the multiplexes, "Eight Legged Freaks" isn't good or funny enough to reinvigorate the style. It can't even maintain its own initial zing.
There's an ecology message buried here: The spiders start growing when the toxic waste that Wade is hiding accidentally spills, pollutes the local river and disastrously mutates the arachnids. Still, no matter how the special effects may have improved -- and the irony increased, it's just another giant spider movie -- with some clever twists and funny jokes to enliven the cliches.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Eight Legged Freaks"
Directed by Ellory Elkayem; written by Jesse Alexander, Elkayem; photographed by John Bartley; edited by David J. Siegel; production designed by Charles Breen; music by John Ottman; produced by Dean Devlin, Bruce Berman. A Warner Bros. release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence, brief sexuality and language).
Chris David Arquette
Sam Kari Wuhrer
Mike Scott Terra
Ashley Scarlett Johansson
Harlan Doug E. Doug
Deputy Pete Rick Overton