Notable Cast: Bruce Davison, Elizabeth Roberts, Arman Darbo, Chloe Perrin, Denise Crosby, Treva Etienne
Maybe it was just fate. Perhaps there's the snapback of quality that is happening right now that comes every decade or so, but the creature feature genre is getting a hefty dose of ‘hell yeah’ in the booming horror scene. Earlier this year Aja and Raimi dropped a fantastic and efficient killer gator flick to theaters with Crawl and just last month saw the release of the Kickstarter funded and Shout!/Scream Factory distributed killer spider flick, Itsy Bitsy. It’s the latter film that’s the focus of this piece and, quite frankly, it deserves the praise. Although the film has certainly been on my radar for most of the year, particularly after the very effective trailer dropped a few months ago, Itsy Bitsy hasn’t had the word of mouth response in my circles that it rightfully deserves since it’s release on VOD last week. The fact remains, Itsy Bitsy is an efficient and effective throwback creature feature that pours on the tension, spikes it with some grotesque moments, and delivers on its simplistic and intimate premise. In a world where the stupidity and self-awareness of SyFy original monster films reigns, Itsy Bitsy is a serious and well-crafted piece of genre cinema aiming to take back the sub-genre.
The premise is simple. A single mom and her two kids, one an older tween boy and a young girl, move to a new town for her to take a job as a personal medical caretaker for an elderly gentleman. He’s a collector of rare antiquities and, unfortunately, one jar happens to have a hibernating cat-sized spider in it. Two houses, roughly four main characters, and one evil spider looking to set up shop. The film writes itself from there.
In the film’s simplicity, director Micah Gallo, who also gets the story by and co-writing credits, embraces an old school approach to the material. The majority of the settings take place in or around two houses with a small ensemble cast and one special effects-driven monster. He whittles the narrative down to its basics (outside of one exception, which will be discussed in a second) and gives the characters basic motivations that are relatable, but not complicated. Itsy Bitsy is, by definitions, a thin script, but for what the film aims to be it might be the smartest choice it makes ultimately. That’s because Gallo can build a film that goes back to the basics of why creature features work on those simple foundations. There are a few cliché standards that play out as going through the emotions for the film, including the eccentric old man or the single mom dealing with the trauma of a lost child and the guilt that suffocates her, but it’s enough to get an audience to care and buy into the horror that is going to happen. The performances are decent all around, touching on surprisingly good from the child actors in the film, and it lays just enough heart for the horror.
The star of Itsy Bitsy, which is predictable in itself, is the spider. The one thing that the film does with surprising success is that it develops a mythology around the spider that makes an audience afraid of it even before the monster is introduced at the end of the first act. The opening credits sequence features a ritual from a foreign place around the capture of the spider and its placement in the jar before it’s stolen by thieves for sale. In itself, the manner that this montage is shot might be one of the highlights of the film and it creates such a fascinating “origin” (even if cliché in its own way) that it benefits everything the film has to say later. It’s further explored by the mythologies that the owner of the jar explains, given some gravitas by another great small performance from Bruce Davison, and it sets up the reveal and terror of the spider nicely once it’s unleashed.
Boy, oh, boy, does Gallo run with it once the spider sets its eight legs on scene. A mixture of practical and visual effects around the spider makes it feel real to the world of the film and Gallo intentionally feeds into every fear about spiders that viewers might have. The way it hides in trees watching the people, sulking in a bathtub, or how it crawls up the foot of the bed under the blankets to feast on an unsuspecting person’s foot. Itsy Bitsy cakes its narrative in tension as the audience sweats out where the spider might be or what it is up to as it stalks its victims. It does not shy away from the gore and goo when it needs to which is just Gallo delivering on the films promises. It’s blissfully aware of what its audience wants and delivers on it in spades.
Like the previously mentioned Crawl, Itsy Bitsy simply gets why creature features can be effective horror entertainment. Dripping dread, shocking scares, and an understanding that simplicity and strong execution delivers on the classic saying ‘less is more.’ This is what Itsy Bitsy brings to the table. The script is a little thin and fairly predictable at times, but decent performances and a focus on delivering on its promises of spider scares, gooey horror, and why people are terrified of spiders makes this film one of my favorites of the year.