“To look inside is to stare into the dark mirror of your ancient soul.”
Raise your hands if you remember Arachnophobia, the 1990 Amblin Entertainment joint about a bunch of mostly regular-sized killer spiders (and one about the size of a dinner plate) attacking a small California town.
Itsy Bitsy is a lot like that, except instead of imaginary killer spiders and a script note that reads “what if this was more like Aliens,” it’s got a quasi-Lovecraftian occult explanation. And another spider a little bigger than a dinner plate.
We get the gist of that occult explanation in the opening credits, which play over a sequence of a scarred, tattooed, and painted tribe that is working in a cobwebbed cave to perform some sort of ritual during an eclipse. You would think, from this intro and a later sequence in which Bruce Davison (Willard, X-Men) finds a parchment depicting the event, that the eclipse would figure into the film’s plot, but no.
In fact, aside from these opening segments and an explanation by Davison’s dissolute tomb raider character, the Lovecraftian explanation for the monster never really comes into play at all. Our giant spider could just as easily have been the pseudo-scientific transplant from Arachnophobia, hitching a ride in a black stone egg this time instead of a coffin.
Which is a shame, since Itsy Bitsy certainly gets the trappings right. They even give their spider god a name—Maa-Kalaratri, Mother of Black Night—along with some hand-waving toward a motivation in the form of “sacrifices.”
And their mumbo-jumbo game is on point. “She presides over the time that we humans are given on this earth,” Davison’s character says, “and she lives in the darkness between the stars.” Certainly sounds like a Great Old One.
Unfortunately, it just looks like a big spider. And it behaves with movie monster logic—showing up in places that are spooky, rather than places that make a whole lot of sense.
There are plenty of moments where the spider is lurking under beds or in bath tubs pretty much purely to create predictable set pieces, not to mention “reveals” that essentially amount to “hey, look, the spider is still where it was a second ago!”
This is the kind of movie where a cat gets killed early on, a trick that would normally be used to establish danger. Except by the time it happens here, Maa-Kalaratri has already killed a person and nobody ever finds the cat anyway, so the danger isn’t established for anyone except the audience.
Stumbling into the path of this somewhat disappointing spider deity is a nurse (Elizabeth Roberts) who is coming apart at the seams due to untreated PTSD and drug addiction.
While she tells her two kids in an early sequence that the reason they are moving from New York to the countryside to take an in-home nursing job is so that they can spend more time together as a family, her kids are still essentially latchkey even after they are ensconced in the isolated country house.
Given that Maa-Kalaratri is described as the “Goddess of all mothers” and that Roberts’ character is suffering from PTSD over an accident that cost the life of her third child, it seems that this motherhood theme is going to factor heavily into the film. But while much time is spent on establishing the dysfunctional relationship, especially between the mother and her oldest child (played by Arman Darbo), the themes never really click into place.
So far I’ve been pretty hard on Itsy Bitsy, but that’s mostly because it narrowly misses the mark, rather than flying wide.
Joining the ranks of recent indie horror flicks partially funded by Kickstarter, Itsy Bitsy is relying on the assumption that you’re already scared of spiders and resting a lot of its hopes on its practical effect central creature—which looks good most of the time, even if I can’t help but be a little disappointed that it’s ultimately just a big spider. I feel like a final-reel transformation into something a little more eldritch would have gone a long way.
There’s plenty of practical makeup effects, too, and while most of the gore is pretty mild, it is also very gross, with lots of oozing and skin turning to jelly. Unfortunately, occult jibber-jabber, solid production design, and an effective climactic sequence in a cobweb-strewn attic with a nice spidery fake-out can only do so much to save Itsy Bitsy from sagging into by-the-numbers horror territory for much of its running time.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.