Spiders: creepy, crawly little critters which seem up to no good – hanging in the corner of your room, leaving webs around just to make a mess – definitely with their own agenda. Not the most obvious creature to base a film on. Yet Hollywood returns to the theme of spiders every ten years or so in its endless recycling of material to try and sell films. Unfortunately they have not learnt from their mistakes. Spider films are generally unsuccessful, even more so than insect films. The success of Spider-Man this year might lead some execs to assume the success was in the spider part of the formulation. The lack of success of Eight Legged Freaks however should put paid to that.
It is telling that of the various arachnid attributes Peter Parker stands to gain in Spider-Man, he gets all the good ones with nary a hint of picking up another six eyes, legs and mandibles.1 Just as his mutation is a metaphor for puberty, the creature causing it and which he styles himself on is a metaphor for alienation. There is no more needlessly reviled creature than the spider. Even at their biggest they are rarely larger than a human fist, and considerably less robust – not having an arm and central nervous system to back them up. Parker may have got the proportional strength and toughness, but your average spider is on the losing end of that proportionality. Even redbacks, the most poisonous of spiders, are relegated to striking in their favourite habitat – the brick shithouse. And whilst I was always taught as a child to be wary of people who lived in toilets, I must say the first emotion that comes to mind is pity rather than fear.
The above of course is all thoroughly rational and gets nowhere near the point that arachnophobia is a disproportionately prevalent fear 2. All sorts of theories can be put forward to justify this: the alien nature of the creature, the webs, the sudden speed they can move, the crawling – which pretty much defines the creepy part of creepy crawly. All of which would suggest that a film which casts spiders as the malevolent force of evil would be a natural fit for a when nature attacks horror movie. At least it would be if it was not for the fact that spiders are eminently squishable.
To make a spider a creditable threat in a movie is to change the very nature of a spider. This is received wisdom in a when-nature-attacks horror movie anyway: sharks rarely attack people, piranhas are rarely found in freshwater rivers in the US – and when you get to the sequel they certainly donít fly. Relying on an aberrant individual creature is the usual get-out, Cujo had rabies and the alligators in Lake Placid and the eponymous Alligator were only getting the food their unusual circumstance required3 . The big problem is that a mad spider on its own is not a creditable threat no matter how crafty and poisonous. So you either need a lot of spiders or you need to change the scale.
Arachanophobia – the Frank Marshall film of 1990 – tries the former. Its thesis is that the introduction of a strain of particularly deadly spiders would be enough for them to go on a rampage. These spiders are still small though and can only really pose a threat in large numbers. This unfortunately undermines the money shots in a spider film. To use spiders to scare is to understand what is frightening about them – something mentioned above which has never been clearly defined. However some sense of capturing the alien movement, the sudden bursts of speed and surprise in which they appear would at least help conjure up this sense of fear. Hence the money shot which all films which are using spiders to shock (not just spider films) is the unknown encounter with a spider. In Arachnophobia this is best illustrated by John Goodmanís Insect Exterminator rummaging around in the cistern of a toilet while we can see a spider getting closer and closer. Eight Legged Freaks has a similar scene in a cupboard where a female character looks for some cat food. The spider both moves around the hand, and gets ready to pounce. In both scenarios the characters are unscathed, the audience titillated by the closest approximation to their own fear of spiders lurking in the unseen parts of our house. It is not a scene which can be successfully re-used within the same film – the horror movie adage that repetition weakens the chills is very much the case. In the end Arachnophobia settles with force of numbers, and weak comedy.4
Eight Legged Freaks, the latest addition to the spider film canon, has a lot more in common with predecessors from the 50ís, in particular Tarantula. It’s happy to rehash and poke gentle fun at its forebears all the while trying to scare with its take on the giant spider story. Unlike Tarantula though – which was content with just the one giant spider – Eight Legged Freaks goes the whole hog mixing Arachnophobiaís masses with Tarantulaís mass. A multitude of spiders though reduces the personality of the adversary and the size reduces the reality. Couple this with a tendency to go for the gag rather than the scare5 and a too thorough working through of genre conventions leaves Eight Legged Freaks being just another horror comedy. The special effects are good, and cleverly used, but in making spiders big we also make them not real. In doing so we lose the fear brought to the project by the presence of spiders – as these are no longer spiders rather very good special effect creatures.
Tarantula has less of a problem with suspension of disbelief. Coupled with Them! (a giant insect movie – a wholly different sub-genre) you have a pair of period shockers which on many levels look laughable to a modern audience but as affectionate source material for films like Eight Legged Freaks are obviously still loved. As a sub-genre themselves of the whole 50ís Sci-Fi B-movie they were played unbelievably straight. Cheap thrillers playing on fears of science, progress, the Bomb and the Red Menace. Unlike the 50ís films which dealt with alien invasion, Tarantula is less a metaphor for Soviet invasion than an anti-science parable. Its scares are in the slow reveal, the actual spider at the end is ludicrously large and back projected but can still chill. The beauty of back projection – no matter how ropey – is that it is a real spider. It is also a real spider which happens to be shown very large in the cinema – in the days before the endless Discovery Channel nature documentaries which has bread familiarity. In the end for all the latter day reclamation of the giant tarantula as a metaphor for the A-Bomb it has to be remembered that it was also a big fuck off spider inevitably laying waste to Arizona.
Giant Spiders are potentially less frightening now than they were in the fifties because of an increase in education and after living with atomic energy for such along time. Both Eight Legged Freaks and Spider-man reject the previous hegemony of radioactive spiders to replace them with toxic waste and genetic engineering. An attempt to perhaps keep up with the times and exploit current fears – but they have possibly missed the boat on education in general. There cannot be a Biology teacher who hasnít invoked giant spiders and the impossibility of such when explaining the cube square law to their pupils6 . We know radiation does not have this effect on animals, we have a pretty safe bet that both toxic waste is equally unlikely to (the real key is of course in the word toxic). There is probably an optimum size for a spider to both invoke our natural fear and yet appear realistic. Unfortunately for the makers of Eight Legged Freaks that is probably about the size of a cat at best, just big enough to cover our faces.
This leads nicely to more successful screen horrors with potential spider substitutes in them. The facehugger in Ridley Scottís Alien is about the size mentioned above, and with its emergence from the egg does match the sudden change in pace that spiders employ. The final Alien when it emerges is all spindly legs and exoskeleton – much bulkier than a spider but there must have been some of that in the design. The problem noted with Eight Legged Freaks wanting to be a horror whilst employing a faceless army of spiders is the very dichotomy between Alien and James Cameronís Aliens. Alien is a horror movie set in space, Aliens is much more a war film. And yet it is Aliens with its Queen and cocooned feeding chambers that Eight Legged Freaks obviously apes.
Verhovenís Starship Troopers employs bugs in a more blatantly staged war setting. His alien Bugs are presented as the ultimate enemy, for what turns out to be implied satirical effect when the realisation that the human are now fascistic and aping our darkest hour as a race. The choice of giant bugs as this opposing force plays up the facelessness (literally) of insects, the similarity to Earth creepy crawlies forces the audience to be against this enemy – allowing Verhoven to slip his satire in a more subtle fashion. Starship Troopers resembles Eight Legged Freaks most in the scenes of fighting – Verhoven’s bugs were wholly computer generated as were the spiders. It seems the one big advance technology has made in this area is allowing the films to play much more with the idea of squishing a spider, both films are full of oddly coloured pus oozing from the creatures when destroyed. Nevertheless while Verhoven is playing up the alien nature of his bugs, he is not going out of his way to scare with them. And he is relying much more on the idea of insects than spiders. Insects who hunt in packs, have the hive mentality and in truth should actually be much more frightening than spiders.
Indeed it is interesting to compare the spider films with the insect films. Insect films have been – in general – equally unsuccessful but at least do not require too much of a change in nature to make their protagonist frightening. Ants have a complex hierarchical culture which importantly is very aggressive. The futility of Charlton Heston raging against a massed army of red ants in The Naked Jungle should be ridiculous yet seems all too human. A bee sting can kill, and again they are social creatures which attack en masse. Wasps are seen to be even worse, able to sting at will. But the two major bee films (The Savage Bees and The Swarm) came in the form of seventies disaster films. Nature attacks but is viewed much like the fire in the Towering Inferno. Watching someone stung by a bee is not frightening and does not evoke the personal memory of being stung – only the actual pain could do that. The most frightening part of The Swarm is actually a hallucination – when the orphaned young child sees his doctor as a giant bee. Giganticism in this case works – it’s a lousy special effect and it is a real bee – the thoroughly alien nature of the bulbous eyes, the hair and the legs is rather unsettling. It is an effect that both versions of The Fly use – though the horror in Cronenburgís version is all about losing your humanity. In his version of The Fly the insect is not the enemy, it is what we become.
This leaves possibly the most successful insect film – Them! – one of the few giant insect films. Them! has a very similar plot to Tarantula but pre-dates it – making much better use of its protagonists. Instead of a giant spider we have ants. And note the film is not called That! There are lots of giant ants, and they are using their hive mentality along with their additional bulk. Them! is frightening partially because of its well structured slow reveal and almost documentary style – but also because there is no easy solution. In Tarantula they can call in the Air Force, they can call in Clint Eastwood to bomb the spider because there is only one. In Them! there are lots of giant ants and Arizona here they come.