It is summer, and once again the studios, like little boys at camp, are kicking into the dirt to see what sort of creepy crawlies will emerge to frighten us. Of course, what emerges is never that unexpected: spiders, worms, ants sometimes. Well, ants if you are desperate.
There are some children who can be made to scream from ants, presuming those children have particularly delicate compositions. And Bert I. Gordon, one of the horror maestros of the ’70s, squared Joan Collins off against giant mutated Polyergus Rufescensin (or one of his relatives) in 1977’s Empire of the Ants ñ the audience for too-easily frightened children was apparently still largely untapped in ’77, although I am hard-pressed to say whether it was the ants or Joan Collins that offered the most chills in the film.
But perhaps Gordon had no choice but to look to ants as a source of mischief in the ’70s, as he has already enlarged most of the animal kingdom in his career as a director. He started large, with dinosaurs, in 1955’s King of the Dinosaurs, created a giant lieutenant in The Amazing Colossal Man in 1957, set rocking teenagers to battle with a massive tarantula in 1958’s Earth vs. the Spider, and carried on like that until 1976’s Food of the Gods, where he simply lost control, including in his film such diverse murderous fauna as a giant worm gnawing on Ida Lupino, a giant chicken, giant rats, and huge wasps.
Gordon is still out there, somewhere, and one expects that he takes a certain satisfaction in this summer’s movie fare. After all, we have a giant spider movie (Eight Legged Freaks, which features a storyline that is nearly identical to Earth vs. the Spider), and we have a giant worm movie. Or, more specifically, a giant wyrm movie, as Reign of Fire tells of the lowly earthworm’s more celebrated mythological ancestor, the dragon. And rather than gnaw on Ida Lupino, these beasties chew on the entirety of London.
There something essentially ridiculous in films such as these, but Eight Legged Freaks knows itself to be stupid, and does everything possible to play into that, including casting the supremely eccentric David Arquette in the lead and comedian Rick Overton as a bumbling town sheriff. As their sleepy desert town is overrun by CGI-created monsters, Arquette and Overton take turns screaming in amusing ways. Arquette has a special knack for this, by the way. Stationed atop a radio transmitter, desperately hollering his plight into a cellular phone to an unbelieving 911 operator, hysteria takes over him and he reverts into a sort of high camp horror movie archetype, ashen-faced and cracked voice, screaming “They’re here! They’re here!”
The spiders themselves are rather mild creatures. Seen at the beginning, hidden in shadows and caves, they seem menacing, but once they emerge into the light, they quickly become ridiculous, hopping across the desert as though on pogo sticks as motorcrossing teens kick them away. The film features some unexpectedly inventive set pieces ñ take note of a scene in which a cat and a spider battle each other behind newly installed drywall, their deadly combat embedded into the wall like some bizarre terra cotta relief. Too, how many films feature an organized arachnid assault on an ostrich farm, with the oversized, flightless birds scampering back and forth as members of their flock are sucked into the earth with an explosions of feather? But for these scenes, though, Eight Legged Freaks’ spiders spend most of their time falling down, banging into walls, and making Three Stooges sound effects, as though Curly, Moe, and Larry had somehow sprouted eight long, hairy, pinching legs.
How very different are the dragons in Reign of Fire. They hover noisily, expanding enormous, tattered wings, rear back long necks, and lay waste to anything in their path with deadly blasts of chemical napalm, formed, by some unexplained process, in their throats. But for a clever Star Wars reference, this is a bleak, humorless affair, as I suppose would be appropriate for a film set in 2020, when most of the earth has been reduced to cinders. All that remains are starving dragons and starving humans, and the dragons outnumber the humans by a terrifying margin. This film may be stupid (and it often is ñ the film’s climax revolves around the preposterous notion that the otherwise supremely evolved dragons have one stunningly ill-conceived biological weakness, in that there is only one male dragon in the entire world), but it never lets on. Instead, director Rob Bowman has wisely trimmed the film down to ongoing images of Christian Bale and costar Matthew McConaughey drenched in sweat, muscles bulging. Looking like some ’70s-era Boris Vallejo painting of axe-wielding barbarians, the two costars point their bristly chins at each other and bark out contradictory commands. When they final strip off their shirts to battle mano a mano, we are not certain whether they will swap punches or kisses. And, for a certain segment of the science fiction/fantasy moviegoing audience (specifically, those women who obsessively write “slash” fiction, detailing the homoerotic adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock), this scene will be the hottest thing on the screen, napalm-spewing dragons notwithstanding.
Eight Legged Freaks. Rated Pg-13. Directed by Ellory Elkayem. Starring David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra. Wide Relase. Opens July 17.
Reign of Fire. Rated PG-13. Directed by Rob Bowman. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco. Wide release. Now playing.