Straight-faced David Arquette battles giant bugs.


directed by Ellory Elkayem

with David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, and Scarlett Johansson

opens July 17 at Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Varsity, and others

In a summer full of mediocre movies, imagine how many titles would be improved by the addition of giant, man-eating spiders. Instead of Tom Hanks bonding with his son in Road to Perdition, we'd have the mobster defending Chicago with his tommy gun, blasting the arachnids into gobs of goo. Instead of Harrison Ford glumly captaining his sub in K-19: The Widowmaker, we'd have him torpedoing the maritime mutants. And as for Spider-Man? There at least we'd have an even contest between web-slinging hero and eight-legged foe.

A lot more fun as a premise than as a movie, Eight Legged Freaks repeatedly tips its hat to Them! and other '50s cheese-horror B-movies. The setup is scarcely more advanced than its Cold War progenitors. Here, a toxic-waste spill causes said spiders to rapidly grow into Hummer-sized predators in an isolated Arizona hick town. Our hero is a prodigal son (David Arquette) returned home to revive the family gold mine and rekindle an old flame with the foxy lady sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), who's saddled with two kids—boy genius and budding teen fox (Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson).

Don't expect Arquette to affect Dewey-level doofusness (a balding character actor gets the dork-cop role). Instead, tempering his signature off-speed dumb-guy shtick, Arquette is comparatively restrained, even when uttering genre-staple groaners like, "I've got an idea!" Playing the smart guy—an engineer, no less—works against the spirit of a movie that gets most of its laughs from the slack-jawed stupidity of the local yokels. (Rent 1990's similar, superior Tremors to see a cast and script striking the right balance between parody and homage.)

As is usually the case with monster movies, Arquette's adversaries are scariest and funniest when skulking about the margins of a scene—not when confronted directly in their CGI glory. Freaks aspires to giggles, not gore. Human deaths are bloodless, if frequent, like video-game casualties. By contrast, spiders explode in satisfying bursts of green ooze that all preteen boys will appreciate. Beyond a little necking (of the human variety), Freaks makes for a tame PG-13 rating, indeed.

There's a certain surefire summer-movie efficacy to the chases and jolts (think early Spielberg), punctuated by periodic orange fireballs and plodding music (think early John Williams). Yet Freaks remains an underperformer despite its modest goals. You finally yearn for Austin Powers, the Rock, and Yoda to help battle the big bugs, since Arquette seems so overmatched.

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