When campy B movies click, they're fun, unpretentious diversions. When they fail, they're just annoying.
"Eight Legged Freaks" promises to deliver - with its lighthearted title and the presence of David Arquette, who's consistently demonstrated a gift for camping it up in the "Scream" franchise, the big-screen version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other movie romps.
And the mutant-spider tale has a clever premise harking back to the giant-bug movies of the 1950s and '60s - and a whole lot of special effects to create armies of monstrous arachnids.
The trouble is, the spiders come off as more interesting than the humans, most of whom put on their own one-dimensional, repetitive freak show of frantic running and screaming that terminates with a spider pouncing and hauling away their carcasses.
The movie begs for more goofy, tossed-off wit amid the carnage, but the screenplay credited to director Ellory Elkayem and Randy Kornfield is mostly devoid of sharp dialogue.
And after a promising setup, Elkayem runs out of ideas and falls back on an endless series of arach attacks that eventually blend together into one long, boring swarm of Buick-sized spiders advancing on scores of retreating humans.
What little story there is revolves around mining engineer Chris McCormick (Arquette), who returns to his economically downtrodden hometown of Prosperity, Ariz., after the death of his father, who owned the little burgh's idled gold mine.
And lucky Chris, he shows up just after toxic-waste contamination has mutated the creepy crawlies from an exotic spider farm into monsters, the mine providing the ideal nesting place.
Chris quickly is back in awkward suitor mode with an old flame, local Sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer), a single mom with a bratty teenage daughter (Scarlett Johansson) and an obligatory science wonderboy for a son (Scott Tera), a kid who helps the dopey adults piece together a plan of attack to fight off the spiders.
For comic relief, Doug E. Doug plays a paranoid pirate-radio operator, filling the local airwaves with his conspiracy theories about aliens among us. And there's Rick Overton as Sam's blunderingly dumb but remarkably lucky deputy.
Other than a few other bit players, the human dynamic doesn't run much deeper. Most of the other townsfolk are there as ready-to-eat rations for the spiders to munch on the spot or as takeout food for the arachnids to wrap in cobweb cocoons and haul home to devour later.
Elkayem came to the project after making a short film called "Larger Than Life," about a mutated spider that grows huge and terrorizes a woman in her house. His interest in that old sci-fi subgenre coincided with a desire by filmmaking partners Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to revisit the B-movie notion of humongous bugs on the prowl, so they hooked up with Elkayem to direct.
Elkayem's visual-effects team delivers handsomely on the computer-generated beasties, but "Eight Legged Freaks" ends up another example that virtual images alone cannot carry a movie without a decent story, characters and dialogue.
It's not that "Eight Legged Freaks" needed a lot of substance. But when the best thing about a movie is the title, it's a certainty no one's going to be clamoring for "Eight Legged Freaks: The Rematch."
"Eight Legged Freaks," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, brief sexuality and language. Running time: 99 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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