August 2002

Eight Legged Freaks

Eight Legged Freaks Given the remake frenzy that is currently gripping Hollywood it was probably inevitable that someone would, eventually, go back to the 50s. But rather than remaking a single film, Eight Legged Freaks tries to put a 21st Century spin in the whole genre of monster movies that cashed in on the publics fears as the world entered the Atomic Age.

The monsters in this case are, of course, giant spiders. And given that we all know that nuclear waste isnt going to cause spiders to suddenly grow to monstrous proportions, we have an equally silly alternative.

Swerving to avoid a rabbit on the road, a truck drops a barrel of toxic slime into a nearby pond and then drives off without realising hes a barrel lighter. Presumably the waste in question is so innocuous that no one felt there was any need to secure it. This would also explain why no one bothers to report the barrel missing when the truck turns up at its destination with (at least) one barrel fewer than it started out with.

Never mind. If the toxic transporters were doing their jobs, we wouldnt have much of a film.

Sexy sheriff Sam Parker (Kari Wuhrer) and Deputy Pete (Rick Overton) find the barrel a few days later, but by this time the damage is done as the barrel has already leaked, poisoning the immediate environment. This is unfortunate because the immediate environment is where Joshua collects the crickets to feed his collection of spiders. Mad scientists are evidently still too much to stomach since Joshuas trade is (illegally) importing and breeding exotic spiders. These crickets cause the spiders to start to grow beyond their normal size - a fact that excites Joshua no end, and one that he shares with his only friend, the arachnophile kid (and Parkers son), Mike (Scott Terra).

I really dont like kids in horror films. Apart from the cutesy annoyingness of celluloid children in general, there will come a moment when you find yourself sitting in a darkened cinema watching the beastie stalking its next potential victim and the soundtrack switches to the character in peril chords. You are, at this point, expected to move to the edge of your seat. However, there is a rule in Hollywood that says the kid never gets it. This means that any scene in which the kid looks like he is in danger will end uneventfully, so this is a good time to sit back and enjoy your popcorn.

So, on to the rest of the story…

The unfortunately named town of Prosperity, Arizona was built on the hope of the local goldmine coming up trumps. Unfortunately, this hasnt happened and, now that the mines owner has died, the towns corrupt mayor, Wade (Leon Rippy) is pressing the residents to sell up to a waste disposal company so that the mines can be used to store toxic waste.

This seems like a good time for the films hero to turn up… and he does. Prodigal son, Chris McCormack (David Arquette) returns after ten years to announce that his father wasnt mad and that there is gold in the mines and hes going to find it. So the sales off. And McCormack the miner goes back to mining in his methane filled mines (bet that comes in handy later on).

Meanwhile, mad Joshuas spiders have escaped… into the mines…

The first part of the film is played reasonably straight. Characters, both major and minor, are introduced and there is a steady stream of spider related incidents to keep things moving. The only real problem at this point is one that is common to a lot of horror films these days, and that is that the characters slot so easily into their allotted stereotypes that it is readily apparent who is going to make it to the end of the film and who is going to become spider food. This, in turn, means that several scenes that could have been reasonably tense lose their impact because you know how it is going to pan out. That said, the film does manage one particularly squirm inducing scene with a hosepipe.

Fortunately, when the spiders finally emerge and go on the rampage, Eight Legged Freaks drops all pretence at being a horror film and moves firmly into action movie territory. People get chased, grabbed and webbed as a chattering, giggling horde of spiders swarm onto a town that is naturally slow to accept the reality of their situation.

And yes, the spiders do chatter, chirrup and giggle. All of which adds to the cartoon-like unreality of the film.

Although the body count is high, there isnt a great deal of gore as most of the violence tends to happen just off screen. The second half of the film is also the part where the jokes start flying thick and fast - including a chainsaw wielding Jason Voorhees ready to defend the shopping mall, the inclusion of which is a nod to Dawn of the Dead. Also worth mentioning at this point is Harlan (Doug E. Doug) the resident conspiracy theorist whos paranoid rantings start out funnily enough, although his fear of anal probes does get a bit wearing after a while.

If you are looking for a fun night out, Eight Legged Freaks largely delivers. My main gripe is the human characters are so flat that it I found it quite difficult to care what happens to any of them. Special mention on this score goes to David Arquette who is a charisma free zone throughout the entire film.

On the other hand, if you have CGI, who needs charisma?

Freaks

Freaks When it was released, Freaks was an immensely controversial film - so much so that it was (surprisingly enough) banned in the UK - largely because of Tod Brownings use of real sideshow freaks as actors.

However, rather than exploiting the characters, Browning portrays them as ordinary men and women trying to cope, not only with their deformities, but also with the constant prejudice they suffer from physically normal members of society. In watching this film, I was reminded of the themes explored in both literature and film, such as Clive Barkers Cabal (Nightbreed if you only saw the film) and even The Toxic Avenger, in which the freaks/monsters are portrayed as essentially decent people trying to survive in a world in which they are considered, at best laughable, and, at worse, repulsive and deserving of an early grave. As such, Freaks was very much ahead of its time and, unfortunately, still is.

Set in a French travelling circus, the plot is pretty straightforward. Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are both midgets and engaged when (the beautiful) trapeze artist, Cleopatra, notices Hans watching her and decides to string him along in order to extract ever more expensive gifts from him, gifts that she immediately hands over to her lover, Hercules the circus strongman, to sell.

On learning that Hans is heir to a fortune, Cleopatra marries him and immediately sets about poisoning him. The freaks quickly become aware of what is happening and, when the opportunity arises, they take their revenge…

And thats it. Its a pretty straightforward plot and one that could be covered in half an hour. And if that was all there was to it, it would be little more than a footnote in the history of controversial films rather than the truly great film it is. However, there are several things, beyond its initial controversy that makes Freaks stand out.

The atmosphere of the film has to be mentioned, especially when the freaks learn what is going on. Everywhere Cleopatra and Hercules turn, the freaks are watching them - under wagons, behind steps. The silent disapproval of the freaks is clear and effectively generates an atmosphere that is both claustrophobic and oppressive.

But even before we get to this point, the film is packed with vignettes that serve to underline the essential humanity of the freaks and the constant prejudice with which they have to deal. The most obvious of these is the scene, early in the film, in which a couple of locals stumble across the freaks enjoying the sun and immediately take offence.

There are two major set pieces to Freaks. The first is the wedding feast following Hans marriage to Cleopatra in which the freaks attempt to welcome her into their family. Initially more interested in flirting - blatantly - with Hercules, Cleopatra eventually understands that she is being accepted as a freak and reacts with horrified disgust, banishing the freaks from her presence. This is the turning point at which the film stops being a drama and starts to become a horror film - the freaks know what is going on and begin to wait for their moment

The climactic scene of the film is both unforgettable and probably the only time I have caught myself biting my nails in a cinema. Set during a rainstorm, the image of the assembled freaks relentlessly closing in on the injured Hercules is one of the tensest and most genuinely horrifying scenes I have seen.

Much is not shown but, as is often the case, imagining what will happen is far worse than seeing it.

There is much that is both excellent and memorable about Freaks and little to criticise. The use of real sideshow freaks lends an air of authenticity to the film that, even today, is unmatched, by makeup and special effects. Even the fact that the freaks are not particularly good actors - Daisy Earles dialogue especially comes across as wooden - adds, rather than detracts to the authenticity of the film.

The film even carries a message and that is that, for all their deformities, the freaks are people too - and it reminds us that values such as friendship, kindness and loyalty will always be far more important than something as skin-deep as physical beauty.