There is something to be said for doing something simple, and well. While I love the recent high concept, analogous horror films like It Follows, The Babadook and The Hole In The Ground, sometimes those simple scares can be more effective. Sometimes a giant killer spider can just be a giant killer spider.
Troubled single-mother Kara (Elizabeth Roberts) and her two children Jesse and Cambria (Arman Darbo and Chloe Perrin) move to the country for her new job caring for Walter (Bruce Davison), a multiple sclerosis suffering antiques dealer. Upon their arrival, Walter acquires an artefact from an old acquaintance, that soon hatches to reveal an ancient, deadly and particularly bloodthirsty spider.
Starting with the positives, Itsy Bitsy has the feel of a proper, old school horror film. From the start there is some nice atmospheric imagery of the spider rituals that really get under your skin, with an eerie soundtrack. The spider itself is rendered creepily with model work and prosthetics. A few instances of CGI work less well, but the practical effects are really nasty and visceral, and makes the spider feel like a much more formidable threat.
It also helps that aesthetically it’s definitely the scariest kind of spider. Not massive, or chunky, but a scuttling, slimy, bitey creature that makes your skin crawl. Also, from a purely technical viewpoint, it’s really well made. The direction from Micah Gallo allows for some really creepy, unnerving camera angles, and the editing, especially the way the flashbacks are integrated into the narrative, feels fluid and incredibly well done.
However, the problems start with the script which leaves a lot to be desired. The dialogue is quite stilted and unnatural, and very exposition heavy in places. There is a lot of backstory and character business to unpack and it’s done in an overt way. While I can understand a bit of pushback against the trend of horror films with subtext, there is no subtext here at all. Everything is surface level, and after a while the on-the-nose dialogue really grates, especially the simmering conflict between the mother and son.
I also didn’t find the plot mechanics that kick the plot into action convincing at all. They find a convoluted way to get the giant spider onto the scene and it’s an unnecessary plot contrivance. The climax is surprisingly nasty and brutal but undermined by a schmaltzy ending. The resolution is very perfunctory and the big problems in the family unit aren’t really resolved, so the happy ending feels a little unconvincing.
The performances are generally also a bit lacking. Nobody is awful, but there aren’t really any memorable performances. The exception is Bruce Davison as the irascible but likeable old man. He brings the best out of the child actors and does a lot with limited screen time. He’s underused but remains the only genuinely likeable character in the film. Elizabeth Roberts is solid as the mum; she doesn’t have the raw intensity of someone like Essie Davis in The Babadook, but in the final confrontation she really brings her A game and you finally begin to root for her. The child actors are generally fine. They veer towards cutesy, but as audiences we’ve been spoiled lately with phenomenal child performances in horror films like The Babadook, Little Monsters and It, so the actors here can’t help but suffer by comparison.
Despite its playful title, Itsy Bitsy is a straitlaced, traditional horror, for good and for ill. The story is well executed if conventional, but let down by the script and some unremarkable performances. A lot of potential, and some good points, but doesn’t have enough bite to stand out from the crowd.