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Creature Features 

Dragons fly while spiders get squashed

Depending on your choice of escapist fare, heading to the multiplex this weekend might result in a childhood flashback, recalling those late nights of monster double features that used to be the after-hours bread and butter of local stations and then cable outlets like Ted Turner's TBS Superstation. Reign of Fire and Eight Legged Freaks both seek to draw viewers away from the season's more high-profile titles, but while both would have been right at home on those Fright Nights of yesteryear, only one of them actually succeeds as a quality production.Eschewing the gee-whiz approach of Dragonslayer and forsaking the downright silliness of Dragonheart (with Sean Connery as the voice of a talking dragon), Reign of Fire may well be the most grim dragon movie ever made -- and it's all the more effective for the filmmakers' decision to play it straight. Working from a script by Matt Greenberg and newcomers Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka, director Rob Bowman (The X-Files) paints the world of 2020 as hell on earth, with hordes of dragons out to kill the few remaining pockets of humans that have managed to avoid the deadly beasts ever since they were awakened from their slumber approximately two decades earlier. One survivor (Christian Bale), a sullen young Brit who witnessed the creatures' resurrection as a 12-year-old lad, figures it's best to lay low and count on all the dragons perishing through starvation, but his course of action gets waylaid by the maneuverings of a macho American (Matthew McConaughey) who figures he knows a way to violently put an end to the fire-breathing menace.

Reign of Fire holds no real surprises in either its plotline or its characters (when one guy states to Bale, "Look, Quinn, I'm your best friend...," we can all figure what's going to happen to him), but for gritty thrills, it can't be faulted, as it's buoyed by some truly exciting action sequences as well as arguably the best dragons ever created for the big screen.

Superb sound effects have enhanced many a sci-fi flick or war epic, but has a motion picture actually ever been ruined due to an ill-advised aural decision? Eight Legged Freaks certainly makes the case for such a claim. There's never been a truly great "spider" movie (1955's Tarantula probably comes closest, though even that pales next to many of the era's more accomplished sci-fi outings), and it's fun to imagine what a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven could have done with this subject matter and an R rating. But as befits its title, this PG-13-rated piffle is ultimately as threatening as the Snuggle Fabric Softener bear, and except for an isolated scene here and there, even arachnophobes shouldn't have a hard time sleeping after sitting through this thing. In depicting its tale of a small town overrun by overgrown spiders (mutation courtesy of a radioactive spill), the movie features all jokes all the time, a ploy that worked well in Abbott and Costello's monster mashes but one that often falls flat here.

As far as the actual spiders go, the special effects are decent enough, and just the sight of these creepy-crawlies bouncing all over the screen might have been enough to elicit a shiver or two were it not for those infernal sound effects. Rather than stalking in silence, these arachnids continuously make non-threatening yelps and chirps that bring to mind the Star Wars saga's Jawas and Ewoks as well as those Gremlins chatterboxes. It may be true that children should be seen and not heard, but it's safe to say that it also applies to cinematic super-spiders.

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