Arquette plays Chris McCormack, a reluctant hero who rides a Greyhound and a blast of contemporary dullard rock back to his tiny hometown of Prosperity, Arizona. Inheriting his recently deceased father's scary, methane-laden mine shafts -- which make ideal nests for huge, mutant killer spiders before they are destroyed in an outlandishly predictable climax -- Chris must reckon with his destiny. Should he assist the heinous development plans of the corrupt local realtor, Wade (Leon Rippy)? Should he announce his long-overdue love for single mother and town sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer, Anaconda)? Or should he protect ol' chain-smoking matriarch Gladys (Eileen Ryan)?
Fortunately for us, Chris doesn't have much time to think. A sensitive trucker has swerved to miss a harmless bunny rabbit, thereby dumping a can of toxic waste into a local bog, where grasshoppers swiftly absorb the gunk. Oddly, this causes no apparent trouble until the bugs are harvested and fed to the exotic imported pets of a rural nutjob spider collector. Swiftly and harrowingly, the various jumping, spitting, surprise-attacking beasts grow to the size (and nearly the obnoxiousness) of SUVs, and the townfolk of Prosperity must band together to deliver amusing, quirky dialogue en route to saving themselves from what could have been a mess of old-school Spielbergian redundancy.
Producers Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (among others) have done this sort of thing before, plugging and retooling classic sci-fi staples like the Godzilla franchise or UFO invasions (Independence Day) for modern audiences. (Shamelessly, they even insert here a snippet of their unjustly canceled, otherworldly television series, The Visitor.) With the help of dewy New Zealand director Ellory Elkayem, this is their most successful venture to date. Fueled by the wit of Elkayem's award-winning giant-spider short, "Larger Than Life," Eight Legged Freaks successfully updates big-bug movies like 1954's Them! while stealing wholesale the desert setting and homespun chuckles of a delightful surprise like 1990's Tremors. There's nary a whiff of the William Shatner-inspired terror of Kingdom of the Spiders nor the urbanite paranoia of Arachnophobia nor the clumsy camp of the recent straight-to-video Spiders. This bravura arachnid picture is built for copious giggles amid high-tech ghastliness.
As with classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man -- wherein an attacking spider's grotesque, hairy maw provides endless fodder for dime-store Freudians -- social and sexual themes are amplified via Freaks' horrors. Tipping us off that the filmmakers are aware of this, Gladys generously opines that Chris's "face fur" makes his mouth look like "a stripper's crotch." A little reflection also reveals the freakiness of Sam's pouty teenage daughter, Ashley (Scarlett Johansson of Ghost World, wearing a permanent expression of "like, duh"). First she fires a stun-gun into her boyfriend's scrotum for his mild petting, and soon after she receives from a spitting spider what can only be described as the world's most repulsive facial. Issues, though yucky and convoluted, are explored.
What makes Eight Legged Freaks work, above all else, is its quirky characterization. We could do without the giggling of the Gremlins-like spiders -- why dilute a nice fright? -- but the human characters are very well drawn for genre material and delivered with aplomb. Young Harry Potter look-alike Scott Terra is superb as the self-reflective boy who must convince the town that his fears are more than just "media-induced paranoid delusions." Rick Overton is perfectly whimsical as Sam's bewildered, gentle deputy. And as Prosperity's conspiracy-obsessed pirate DJ, Doug E. Doug (Cool Runnings) parlays genuine soul to the cracker dustbowl.
Ultimately, if co-screenwriters Elkayem and Jesse Alexander really wanted to scare Middle Americans, they'd forget spiders and focus on huge, mutant fat grams. Eight Legged Freaks has its share of shocks and nail-biting action sequences, but unlike, say, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell's mean and nasty remake of The Blob, this thing's all in fun. It's just a perfect movie for people who like to shout at the screen, so have at it.