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Hot Legs

On the first day (of opening weekend), the Lord said, "Let there be, like, this year's Evolution or sumpin', only with more hope for significant box-office returns," and there is, and it is called Eight Legged Freaks, and it is good. The silly title needs a hyphen in the compound adjective (does no one comprehend basic grammar anymore?), and the wildly animated action could use a little more humanity (many die; no one cares), but overall, this slick flick kicks, and lo! even David Arquette (Scream, et al) walks through the valley of fear without provoking critical vivisection.

Arquette plays Chris McCormick, 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 and disturbingly dentigerous local real estate agent, 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 nut-job spider collector. Swiftly and harrowingly, the various jumping, spitting, surprise-attacking beasts grow to the size (and nearly the obnoxiousness) of SUVs, and the townsfolk 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 Dev- lin 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. Under the helm of dewy New Zealand director Ellory Alkayem, this is their most successful venture to date. Fueled by the wit of Alkayem'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. This bravura arachnid picture is built for copious giggles amid high-tech ghastliness.

What makes Eight Legged Freaks work is its quirky characterization. We could do without the giggling of the Gremlins-like spiders, 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 dust bowl.

Ultimately, if coscreenwriters Alkayem 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 a perfect movie for people who like to shout at the screen, so have at it.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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