Received two films this Christmas. One was a Criterion Collection Blu-ray: The Darjeeling Limited. The other was a DVD that has not yet received the Criterion Blu-ray treatment: Ice Spiders. It was already known that the former would be worthwhile. And based on the price of the latter and the impressive tagline on its cover (“Hell has just frozen over”), it was clear that it would be just as impressive, albeit in a different respect. In what is destined to become a classic of the sub-genre of arachnid-horror-films-set-in-the-mountains-of-Utah, Ice Spiders is noteworthy for its almost Godard-esque disregard for cinematic subtlety. The hackneyed, (not-so-)special effects are contextualized in a premise that somehow balances out the film’s overall tone of mediocrity: a top-secret government outpost for biological experimentation on spiders gets out of hand when said spiders grow to huge sizes and escape. The initial idea to situate the lab in very cold environs because of the spiders’ inability to survive in the cold ultimately backfires when (spoiler alert) they adapt. Oh yes, and this sinister alpine laboratory also doubles as a popular ski lodge in the great Mormon state. It only makes sense to couple something highly dangerous with clean family fun.
So, being sutured to a bunch of would-be dude-awesome Olympian skiers heading up to the lodge to do some hardcore-bro training, the viewer is as surprised as they are (insofar as the actors convince the viewers that they’re surprised) to discover that a military-associated and government-funded “professor” cares much more about taking the escaped giant spiders alive than he does about saving lives in the short-term. (Side note: just love how many films out there feature the head of a science team who’s known as “the professor” in an utterly non-pedagogical context. In this case, there’s certainly no classroom anywhere near this mountain lab, but anyway…) As for this “professor,” you just know that with glasses like those, he has to be a bad guy from the first moment. It turns out, to everyone’s surprise, that in order to ensure the victory of the humans over the spiders, a previously washed-up skier (whose career was ruined not by a broken leg, mind you, but a shattered one) will need to out-ski a bunch of spiders down the slopes. This is the obligatory penultimate scene that wants so badly to be the end of the original Star Wars: Luke & company outmaneuvering the bad guys and exploding the Death Star (read: giant mama spider).
The chemistry between the characters is unsurpassed…extraordinary…amazing…profoundly mesmerizing. On a noetic level, each of them has just the right knowledge on a given subject (be it skiing, spiders, weather, or survival skills) to get them through each harrowing episode of the film. We get to see the consequences of ignorance from the film’s opening scene. There, a couple of rough ‘n tough hunters do the stupid: try to outrun a big spider after unloading a few hunter’s arrows on it. That only gets it angrier. As a result, Dumb and Dumber end up wearing body-length, home-spun stockings as the spider sips their life-juice like a fat kid with a Kool-Aid juicebox. While we could continue with these pensées, it seems better to halt and acknowledge the ineffability that such films as Ice Spiders produces. Are we tiptoeing the line between the immanent and the transcendent? Are we in a realm of the truly “other”? Is this the sort of film that “really makes you think,” or is it the kind of film that stops thinking dead in its tracks? Whatever one’s unique response to this artifact, it remains indubitable that Ice Spiders bleeds, as it were, a surplus of remarkable and possibly unprecedented material to the engaged viewer. Consider yourselves invited.