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It ain't itsy bitsy, and that ain't no water spout it's climbing.
Plenty of DVD Talk reviewers have gone on to accomplish some truly incredible things, whether it's overseeing DC's entire line of Justice League comics, competing on The Bachelor, accompanying Guillermo del Toro to the Academy Awards, or crafting a black-and-white epic about a loose meat mutant astronaut, along with world-class writing in every medium conceivable. Little did I know that when Micah Gallo was contributing to the site back in 2016, he was deep into pre-production on Itsy Bitsy – a passion project that he and his many collaborators had for years been toiling to bring to life.
Kara (Elizabeth Roberts) desperately needs a fresh start. Ravaged by the loss of her youngest son, it's been a mighty struggle for Kara to hold down a job, especially with her newfound opoid addiction. Her other two children – Jesse (Arman Darbo) and wee Cambria (Chloe Perrin) – aren't exactly overjoyed at the prospect of trading New York for some hopelessly remote speck on the map, but it's not as if they have any say in the matter. At least there's the promise of more family time, as Kara will be working as the live-in nurse for Walter Clark (Bruce Davison), and she and the kids will be staying in a guest house on his estate. Whatever daydreams of family lunches and bear hugs waft through their heads are shortlived. Kara can't resist the siren song of her new patient's Oxycontin. Jesse, worn down after being thrust into the job of substitute parent at such a tender age, steals from Walter as well. And seeing as how Sheriff Jane Dunne (Denise Crosby) recognizes all too well the signs of Kara's addiction, it's just a matter of time until things all come crashing down.
And there's a good chance you're reading all that and wondering "...wait, but what about the spider?!" So, one of the topics in the writers' commentary is that early drafts were wildly successful when it came to suspense – with some sequences more intense than anything ultimately in the finished film – yet woefully lacking in character drama. As time went on, and with actors this gifted soon in place, the more dramatic elements of Itsy Bitsy became immeasurably more effective. So much of this is because these aren't stock cariactures. In any other movie, Walter would've been some crotchety old man who goes through nurses like he goes through colostomy bags, with, perhaps, some glimmer of humanity exposed as he unexpectedly bonds with young Jesse. Instead, he's a thoroughly decent, charming guy. Sure, he can be gruff, and there's a line past which point he won't allow himself to be pushed, but all in all...? Human. Along those same lines, the expectations are that the town sheriff would be some bearded dude growling about keeping his eye on this shifty outsider Kara and/or the two of them stumbling into each other's arms while being besieged by eight legged critters. No. Sheriff Dunne is a woman who recognizes and sympathizes with Kara's plight, having herself worn those same shoes. She sincerely wants to help make things better because again: human.
The list keeps going on from there. The two children contribute spectacular, thoroughly believable performances. Jesse struggles with the responsibility forced upon him, picking up his mother's slack as a parent and doing his best to ensure that his kid sister remains unaware of how precarious a situtation they're in. And Cambria's infectious innocence is something we as the audience want to see protected and preserved. She's precious, but hardly in an artificial, cloying, cinematically constructed way. Elizabeth Roberts contributes such an outstanding performance in the film's central role, flawlessly realizing Kara's inner turmoil. She at this point is shattered, and it's so much of a struggle just to endure the day to come that she can't muster the strength to piece herself back together. Kara is all too aware of the dark path she can't resist treading, and that anguish resounds so deeply.
Again, though, you're wondering "...but...spider?", and I get it. The earliest drafts of Itsy Bitsy placed a greater emphasis on people-versus-arachnids but struggled with character drama, and while the latter is infinitely more effective in the film we're treated to here, the balance between the two still isn't nearly where it ought to be. When I see the title "Itsy Bitsy", especially atop the '80s throwback painted art on this Blu-ray set, it evokes something playful and darkly comedic with the spider(s) at the forefront. That's just not the movie this is. Admittedly, Itsy Bitsy opens by introducing the concept of the Black Egg of Maa Kalaratri and the inhumanly massive spider that Walter's stolen reliquary contains. Some well-earned nervous laughs come from the dramatic irony of we the audience knowing that this creature is on the prowl, inches from the hapless prey that repeatedly eludes her. And though there's a very modest body count leading up to this point, we don't actually see a successful attack on-screen until right at the hour mark. The spider looks phenomenal, and there's an immediacy and presence to this tactile, practical creation that eclipses anything that CGI could ever hope to match. The sight and sound of her make my skin crawl in the best possible way, and the final half hour of Itsy Bitsy is a relentless, unnervingly intense assault. Some may bristle at the prospect of there only being a single spider to fend off, but with this spider...fuck it, the movie only needs one, especially given that Itsy Bitsy takes risks that few creature features would ever dare.
Gallo acknowledges such concerns in one of his commentaries, noting that the reason we don't see more of the spider is simply a matter of time and money. As much as I understand and respect that, it's hard to argue that this is the ideal mix of family drama and spidery suspense. I would expect that many viewers would feel much the same way, as if they, to a point, have been promised one movie and delivered another. There is so much to admire about Itsy Bitsy. This isn't some slapdash, assembly line Asylum creature feature; many years in the making, the love, consideration, and craftsmanship in every frame are unmistakable. It's a resounding success in most every respect: its performances, cinematography, sound design, special effects, score, strong female characters, and whatever else you'd care to name. There's so much I love about Itsy Bitsy, and I'm greatly looking forward to revisiting it someday soon, as I'll be freed from the shackles of preconceived notions. Alas, I'm writing this review now, with that struggle between expectations and reality still muddying the waters. Though I suspect that I'd pen a more positive review the next time around, for the moment, leaving you with a straightforward "Recommended" sounds about right.
Close the curtains, and turn off the lamp. Especially throughout its third act – set in the dead of night, with the moon and crashes of lightning as the sole sources of light – Itsy Bitsy is best experienced in total darkness. The impact of the film's most shadowy sequences would otherwise be greatly diminished.
And perhaps that reads as more of a review of you than of Scream Factory's Blu-ray release, but that's the way it goes, especially given that the disc itself leaves so little room for complaint. Filmed with the Red Dragon and Sony F65, Itsy Bitsy's digital photography is startlingly crisp and detailed. Blacks are deep and inky, yet thankfully never crushed. Throughout the first hour of the film, when light is in far greater supply, its palette is frequently a knockout. Even under unnecessarily close inspection, I was unable to spot any sputters or stutters in Itsy Bitsy's AVC encode, which spans both layers of this BD-50 disc.
Just to listen to Itsy Bitsy, there's no aural indication that this is a low budget and fiercely independent production. Its 24-bit, six-channel lossless soundtrack easily ranks among the most exceptional of the nearly two hundred movies I've watched so far this year. In the proudest horror tradition, the sound design has a knack for dynamics, eking the most out of near-total silence and then unleashing hellish, thunderous waves of bass. Every element in the mix is dazzlingly clear and distinct, never unduly struggling for placement. There's such an emphasis on directionality that even the film's dialogue is discretely placed rather than anchored solely in the center channel. Atmospherics in particular impress: the cheerful chirp of insects on a sunny morning outdoors, a torrential downpour and accompanying claps of thunder, and the windy clatter that so terrifies Cambria in her bedroom at night.
This is such an immersive 5.1 soundtrack that, when upconverted via Neural:X, it's effectively indistinguishable from a native Atmos mix. Aging boards creak in the attic above. This monstrous spider skitters across the entirety of the soundscape. The inescapable, nightmarish sounds of twisted metal leave me feeling that much more as if I'm trapped alongside Kara in her upended car. Though we're only witness to the aftermath of the wreck, the sound design leading up to it is so convincing that I'm fooled into thinking I'd seen every last unnerving moment. I am far from the type to freely hand out five star ratings, but Itsy Bitsy is more than deserving of a perfect score.
Among the other audio options are a lossless stereo track (also 24-bit), a pair of commentaries, and a set of English (SDH) subtitles. Some of the dialogue in the prologue is subtitled regardless, and that handful of you with constant image height projection rigs can breathe easy that those subs don't spill over into the letterboxing bars.
- Audio Commentaries: Micah Gallo wore all sorts of hats while bringing this passion project to fruition, and he approaches the first of his two commentaries primarily as director and producer. This exceptionally engaging solo track casts a wide net, including lighting, camerawork, editing, sound design, visual effects, scoring, financing, and distribution. To rattle off just a handful of highlights...? Favors and goodwill trumping tax credits when lining up locations, the physical toll that production took on him, Itsy Bitsy originally being envisioned as a PG-13 release, some of the challenges inherent to picking up shots a full year later, and the many years of work and experimentation necessary to bring the colossal spider to life. This is easily the most essential of Itsy Bitsy's extras.
Gallo returns for the second track with fellow writers Brian Dick and Jason Alvino, and...well, with three writers onboard, you probably don't need more than one guess to suss out what the dominant focus is here. Though not quite as compelling as the disc's other commentary, I still very much enjoyed hearing about how Itsy Bitsy took shape, starting with its earliest drafts a decade ago. It's always fascinating to learn about the ideas that were remolded or altogether abandoned, particularly the profoundly different Sheriff Dunne that was originally envisioned, the coroner that Larry Drake was to play before his untimely passing, the near-entirety of the first act originally being set in New York, and a less ambiguous end for one noteworthy character.
- The Spider: Beginnings (3 min.; HD): Micah Gallo and Slither's Dan Rebert delve into their Brando-esque intentions with the spider's performance as well as which all-too-real eight legged buggers inspired its design. Making the most of its lean runtime, "The Spider: Beginnings" also shows off a number of stages of fabrication, the impressive animatronics, and even some early effects tests.
- Itsy Bitsy: The Journey (2 min.; HD): The disc's second featurette touches on just how challenging and ambitious a production this was, marching forward undaunted despite knowing that they didn't have enough money quite yet to fully realize their vision, and detailing the various stages of photography.
- Denise On Set (3 min.; HD): Weaving together behind-the-scenes footage with interviews, we're told how pivotal to the film Sheriff Dunne is, the dimension her presence adds to Kara as a character, and how brilliantly Denise Crosby embraced and inhabited the role.
- Kickstarter Mini-Featurettes (4 min.; HD): Five very short featurettes from Itsy Bitsy's Kickstarter campaign have been compiled here. They include a quick discussion about our primal fascination with and fear of arachnids, the effectiveness and heightened impact of practical effects, the film's strong female characters (to such an extent with Sheriff Dunne that she scores another mini-featurette all her own), and grounding Itsy Bitsy in family drama rather than cheap scares.
- The Most Spidery Spider (3 min.; HD): Did you know...!? Before deciding to lean instead on practical effects, the original plan was for an actor in a mo-cap suit to bring the spider to life digitally. Who was the guy who did that for King Kong? Andy Something-or-another? Yeah, Andy Dick; that sounds right. So, anyway, here's a peek at Andy Dick doing a very serious and very real screen test on Itsy Bitsy's motion capture stage.
- Storyboard Gallery (31 min.; HD): The lengthiest of Itsy Bitsy's extras is a half-hour compilation of storyboards, almost completely in chronological order. Most of the sequences with Sheriff Dunne and Walter aren't represented, nor do we see Ahkeeba as he smashes the reliquary. This reel does include multiple versions of one memorable death sequence, along with animation notes for several of the more ambitious spider-centric shots.
- Trailers (4 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are two theatrical trailers.
The reversible cover features striking artwork on both sides, each painted by the legendary Matthew Peak (A Nightmare on Elm St.). Itsy Bitsy also arrives packaged in a slipcover.
The Final Word
If I didn't have a stack of other titles to review, perhaps I'd watch Itsy Bitsy one more time before sitting down to write this. The core of my criticism has more to do with my own misplaced expectations rather than much of anything about Itsy Bitsy as a film. So if you clicked on this review in the hopes of a cacklingly demented giant-spiders-run-amuck horror/comedy, you're better off knowing beforehand that that's not what you're gonna get. On the other hand, you have a beautifully photographed and brilliantly performed family drama that packs a hell of an emotional wallop to look forward to, and...y'know, a colossal spider with a taste for two-legged prey as a bonus.
I could very easily picture myself adjusting the score higher and awarding a more enthusiastic recommendation after another viewing. For the time being, though, I'll close out this review with an emboldened, italicized Recommended.