Written by: Nathan Bartlebaugh
Camel Spiders (Not rated) 2012 Running time:80 min Directed by: Jim Wynorski Written by: Jim Wynorski, J. Brad Wilke Starring: Brian Krause, C. Thomas Howell, GiGi Erneta, Diana Terranova, Michael Swan
When one sits down to review a movie like Roger Corman’s Camel Spiders it’s helpful to be honest about your expectations. I have long since given up fighting my ridiculous urge to watch grade-z trash like this and the fact that Camel Spiders is cheap and shoddy is a given from the get-go. What audiences go out for with a movie like this is a goofy, fun time that can primarily generate giggles, and if there’s a few chills thrown in, all the better.
Director Jim Wynorski has a long and undistinguished career of making fast and cheap pictures on the go, and his resume varies from entertaining 80’s timewasters like Chopping Mall and Return of Swamp Thing to more preposterous recent titles like The Bare Wench Project, The Hills Have Thighs and Oscar frontrunner for 2012, Piranhaconda. By contrast with most of those, Camel Spiders is a rather modest attempt, building a cheap monster movie out of a recent embellished urban legend. Thanks to email forwards and Youtube videos, the myth of the dangerous, flesh-eating camel spiders of the Middle East spread like wildfire across the internet a few years back. Photos showed them hanging around military bases and terrorizing sleeping soldiers while videos featured them running like dynamos, chasing jeeps and chomping on lizards.
The reality of the spiders is less sensational than all of that, although they do really exist. Solifugae—the scientific name of the creepy-crawlies—are neither as big, fast or deadly as their neo-mythic counterparts, but that doesn’t stop Wynorski from making them every bit as overblown and violent as the folklore. These beasties are big, bad and although they look like special effects from a community college video production class, they are also the closest thing to stars that the movie has.
Well, unless you count that other urban legend, C Thomas Howell, hiding out behind a pair of black sunglasses and a sheriff’s hat wondering when his paycheck’s going to show up. The only other name I recognized was Brian Krause (Sleepwalkers, Return to the Blue Lagoon), as the military hero who finds the monstrous spiders have followed him all the way from Iraq to the American Southwest. A few questionable females show up to round-out the cast –the curiously named Diana Terranova looking a bit like a post-op tranny—but all they prove is that it’s really funny when a civilian in an ill-fitting uniform tries to look experienced wielding a firearm. To be fair, it’s almost as silly when Krause or Howell do so, but the girls compound the issue by trying to make carrying a gun look ‘sexy’. You would assume that the female soldier is using hers as exercise equipment given how many times she heaves it into the air, brings it back down to her hip, and then punches it back and forth, all of this without shooting a single spider.
Camel Spiders begins in the Middle East, with a hilariously generic firefight with insurgents that gets interrupted by a pack of camel spiders looking to chow-down on the bad guys. Truthfully, the movie should have stayed right there in that setting. Woefully attempting social context by placing the film in the context of the war, Wynorski does manage a goofy sense of near satire as the film pillages stereotypical imagery, routine political angst, and thieves from a thousand and one ‘men on the frontlines’ pictures. This sets it up as a potential comedy-thriller, particularly when one of the locals says of the spiders ‘We call them desert devils’ and Krause shoots back ‘Well, they were angels for us today.’ A film with Krause and co. using herds of camel spiders to turn the tide of the war would be extremely dopey and potentially insensitive, but it would also make the movie something it isn’t in this version; memorable.
Instead, it moves back to the Midwest where it follows the template of better big bug movies like Arachnophobia and Eight Legged Freaks, without any of the knowing humor or homage that went into those films. So, at that level, the film is a failure, even in it’s subgenre. It isn’t particularly exciting and its bugs are never remotely terrifying because they don’t behave like spiders, they never seem to share a single frame with the humans, and they shriek like a sick pig which instantly makes them laughable. Not a single actor cares about what they are spewing from the script, which itself seems to have been hastily assembled after receiving one of those camel spider forwards that started this whole mess. If Wynorski had at least tuned into the cultural vibe of those faux-fables about the spiders and injected his movie with half of the crafty fun put into changing the perspectives of those photos or fabricating gestation stories like the fact camel spiders lay their young in actual camels, then it might be a worthy creature feature.
Unfortunately—or fortunately depending your perspective and penchant for mockery—the filmmakers are closer to those nervous nellies who instantly sent the pics and videos out to all of their family members, lamenting the dastardly beasts our poor brave soldiers have to contend with. It sinks the movie as a plausible thrill ride, but it also ensures that it still be entertaining. Unlike flashier, more tongue-in-cheek fare like Sharktopus or Mega-Piranha, Camel Spiders takes itself a hundred-percent seriously while also being phenomenally inc0mpetent. It’s one of the few SYFY movies I’ve seen that could literally be a relic from the 50’s—since most of the action takes place at an old diner, the setting need not even change. This changes the game and makes it more interesting than some of the tepid timewasters on the network because every scene becomes a kind of ‘spot the gaff’, ‘name the inspiration’, or ‘heckle the dialogue’ without the movie winking at you as a reminder to lighten up. Camel Spiders is packed full of risible material and it doesn’t rob us of the joyful task of deriding it on our own.
Get some beer and get some friends—and if a few have ever actually served in the military or been to the Middle East, all the better—and strap yourself in for a fun time. Keep an eye out for a particularly favorite scene of mine in which a teacher and his students observe one of the spiders from afar. ‘Remarkable’ exclaims the old coot. ‘’Billy, count the appendages! How many are there?’ Billy replies in awe ‘Six!’ The teacher approves, proud of Billy’s knowledge. Instant cut-away to a scene of the camel spider, rendered to look somewhat like the real deal, with a total of 10 appendages—eight legs and two frontal pincers! An Ed-Woodian moment if there ever was one and a hilarious argument for making sure your actors know what the special effects look like before they act out a scene.