Hollywood seems to have forgotten that they once made a ton of money on the giant animals subgenre of sci-fi and horror cinema. It is true that most of that money came in way back in the 1950s - and that the times have changed quite a bit since then - but I still find it a bit odd that the type of film which put known actors and impressive special effects against mutations of science that resemble their real world counterparts has pretty much disappeared from existence. Especially when you look at the surprising outlier to this equation, the 2002 spider-epic Eight Legged Freaks.
Though the Hollywood "stars" - David Arquette and Kari Wuhrer (the latter of whom seemed to be "the next big babe" for about 6 years running and was fading from prominence at this point) - are unimpressive and the special effects are not always fantastic, Eight Legged Freaks is a film that does not settle in behind its limitations. Writer/director Ellory Elkayem, who was noticed by the producers thanks to a big bug short film he made a few years earlier, seems completely interested in making this type of film and shows a strong love for the standards set by big bug films gone by.
From the ominous opening warning (turned conspiracy tirade) by Cool Runnings' Doug E. Doug to the barrel of toxic waste and an "origin" scene featuring the great and powerful Tom Noonan, Eight Legged Freaks is rooted deeply in the methods of the classic mutant monster films that came long before it. There's family drama (Wuhrer plays a single mom, with her teenage daughter played by a young Scarlett Johansson(!), getting her early career "scream queen" on), there's the displaced hero (Arquette, returning to his hometown as an outsider as the outbreak begins), and there's plenty of teeter-tottering between monster action and scenes without monsters in which characters debate the existence of monsters.
The whole film is written to formula - you could pretty much shake this script out and the pieces would fit into cracks in the scripts for Them or Tarantula almost 50 years earlier - but the fresh coat of paint and some technical prowess do wonders for the film. Colors pop off the screen, and the color pallete of the film seems to almost emulate a comic book horror tale, with the southwestern USA setting shining under the blazing sun and glistening under a blue moonlight. Music from talented composer John Ottman adds a lot to the film, and the script manages to balance between eras with its monster action. In one scene we see an old man attacked in an armchair. In another, we see dirtbikers stampeded by giant arachnids. There's a little something for everyone.
Many have listed Eight Legged Freaks as a "horror comedy", and I will concede that there are a few jokes scattered throughout the film. But I've always felt it was a little unfair for the film to be labeled as such, because it seems like a lot of people come to that conclusion based on the film's sensational premise. Younger generations aren't accustomed to films that make huge leaps of science and take them seriously, like those giant spider films mentioned earlier, and I think that hurt the perception of Eight Legged Freaks a lot. The film hauled in just 17 million at the US box office - I imagine it covered costs and made a profit with video, but not by much - and a lot of people who did see it labeled the film "so bad, it's good" or worse.
Maybe there's not as much of a market for mutated insects as I wish there was, but I still feel like Eight Legged Freaks is sorely underappreciated. It's got the same small-town charm that Tremors offered, some Gremlins-like scenes of mayhem, and it plays the viewer just like any good matinee monster movie should. Eight Legged Freaks works as an old-school monster flick, and it adapts to its time well, too. By the time the town mall and some dirt bikes in underground caverns come into the film, Eight Legged Freaks has established its place as a b-monster madhouse, and I think anyone who's open to the idea of giant spiders in a small desert town will leave the film with a smile.