Originally created 07/18/02

Summer movies feature creature campiness



LOS ANGELES -- Watch out, moviegoers! It's the attack of the Clones! Attack of the Scorpion King! Attack of the Crocodile Hunter! And now ... attack of the Eight-Legged Freaks!!!

Summer has seen a swarm of big-budget movies trying to mimic the campy excess of old-fashioned B movies, known for bare-knuckle brawlers, outer-space melodrama and gigantic mutant bugs.

The makers of these deliberately cheeky stories know their films are lowbrow and they don't care. Part of the appeal of these expensive B pictures is that they don't take themselves seriously.

"I'm not after respect. I'm out to have a good time," said Ellory Elkayem, co-writer and director of "Eight Legged Freaks." "It's a compliment to be compared to a B movie."

In his film, toxic waste creates a horrific horde of gargantuan spiders that devour the inhabitants of a small desert town, following in the chewy, gooey tradition of insect invasion movies like 1955's "Tarantula" and 1977's "Empire of the Ants."

"I'm especially into 'creature features' and thought, 'Gee, wouldn't it be cool to do one of those in this day and age with modern technology?"' Elkayem said.

In the days of double features, the "B movie" was typically a low-budget, science fiction, horror or adventure story that was shown at theaters after the more prestigious A picture (with its bigger stars and better production values).

As double features disappeared, the term "B movie" came to mean any genre picture or movie serial that sacrificed quality to keep costs low.

"The B type of movie skews reality. It has exploitative themes and monsters and exaggerated cliffhanger moments. And that's their charm," said cult movie scholar Tom Weaver, whose interview books include "I Was a Monster Moviemaker" and "They Fought in the Creature Features."

B films are often marked by elaborate, declarative titles like "The Killer Shrews," "Teenagers from Outer Space" and "Creature from the Haunted Sea." More recent B fare often adds sex to the formula, as in 1988's "Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama."

The strong following behind those innocent, older B films has prompted some current A-list filmmakers to try recreating the flawed charm of the originals with state-of-the-art production values.

Some of those films have been outright parodies, like Tim Burton's 1996 comedy "Mars Attacks!" and 1978's tongue-in-cheek "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

But even "Star Wars," one of the most popular and profitable movie franchises of all time, was conceived as an homage to the kind of B pictures in which you could often see the string dangling the wobbly spaceship.

"Star Wars" creator George Lucas wanted to tell the same kind of stories as "Flash Gordon" and "Captain Marvel," but he also wanted to make it look real.

"I started out with a modest little movie that was designed to be in the motif of a 1930s action-adventure serial that they used to show on Saturday matinees," Lucas said. "So the whole style was kind of '30s and very cliffhanger-ish."

Even the title of his latest film, "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones," is an homage to cult movies like "Attack of the Puppet People" (1958) and "Attack of the Giant Leeches" (1959).

While "Eight Legged Freaks" had a midlevel budget of $30 million, "Attack of the Clones" cost upward of $120 million. Most of the B movies of the 1940s and 1950's were priced in the tens of thousands, according to Weaver.

"That wouldn't pay for six seconds of most of these new movies," he joked.

"The Scorpion King," which cost about $60 million, drew comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) for its muscleman barbarism. But it also echoed the beefcake battling of older "sword and sandal" B movies like "Son of Samson" (1960) and "The Terror of Rome Against the Son of Hercules" (1963).

"It's a throwback to the old days when there were no guns, just guys with swords going at it," said "Scorpion King" star Dwayne Johnson, a k a The Rock.

"The Scorpion King" was not opposed to making a wisecrack to deflate a weighty scene, and that campy humor is what sets a B film apart from sword-fighting prestige pictures like 1960's "Spartacus" and 2000's "Gladiator."

Similarly, "The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," a part-fiction, part-documentary comedy about real-life adventurer Steve Irwin, was designed to humorously mimic the 1940s' "Tarzan" serials starring Olympic athlete Johnny Weissmuller.

"I love those cliffhangers, that was exactly where we were headed," Irwin said. "No animatronics, all the animals are real. ... And you get a bit of a laugh at my expense."

Like Tarzan, Irwin's character employs the help of animals like a 12-foot crocodile, a deadly King Brown snake and a venomous, hairy spider to fend off "civilized" intruders to his wild kingdom.

The main story differences are that Irwin was raised by crocodile wranglers instead of apes, and his kingdom is the Australian bush instead of the African jungle.

B pictures must have a sense of humor about themselves now, as opposed to the grave earnestness of the original films, Weaver said.

"We're at the point where we know there is no alien invasion," he said. "We know radiation won't turn an ant into something the size of a school bus. So to have these movies, there must be a spoofy, humorous element."

As in "Eight Legged Freaks," a spoonful of comedy helps the venom go down.

Said Elkayem: "I want people to be laughing when they're not screaming."