It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
It may sound as though I’m damning it with faint praise, but Big Ass Spider! is as good as a film titled Big Ass Spider! can be. How good is that? If forced to make a comparison, I’d say better than Attack of the Giant Leeches but not as good as Mant, the movie-within-a-movie from Joe Dante’s Matinee.
An unknown, extremely venomous spider is inadvertently brought into a Los Angeles hospital with its latest victim. With each person it kills and feeds upon, it quadruples in size until it is the giant arachnid promised in the title. When the military proves ineffective in stopping it, the only thing standing between the spider and complete destruction of L.A. is Alex (Greg Grunberg), a resourceful exterminator, and his security guard sidekick, Jose (Lombardo Boyar).
From this basic, throwback to a ‘50s giant creature feature framework, director Mike Mendez and screenwriter Gregory Gieras spend most of the film alternating between scenes of the spider terrorizing the city and Alex and Jose cracking wise with each other.
The loose, improvisational scenes between Alex and Jose are the best parts of the film. Grunberg and Boyar have an easy chemistry and look like they’re actually having fun trying to one-up the other to get in the last word. In all honesty, the film could have worked just fine as a hang out movie where their two characters simply drive around L.A. busting each other’s chops for eighty minutes.
The spider on a rampage scenes don’t work as well as the character bits. It’s plain to see that Mendez didn’t have the budget to pull off the type of grand set pieces present in the film. While the digital effects used to bring the spider to life aren’t as low-grade as a SyFy Channel movie, they are only a few steps up the ladder. The early scenes with the smaller version of the spider work best as it is glimpsed crawling out from under blankets, around corners, or moving into dark corners. When it has grown to the size of King Kong and is perched atop a skyscraper, snatching helicopters out of the sky by shooting webs, the CGI is just looks far too fake to continue suspension of disbelief.
Mendez does make a smart choice from the start of the film to make it clear that nothing is to be taken seriously and that helps the film over the hurdle of its cheap effects. From a very funny slow motion opening sequence to the series of fateful mistakes that bring Alex to the front lines of the fight, Mendez establishes an overtly comedic tone that the movie maintains throughout.
Just as importantly, Big Ass Spider! doesn’t make a joke of the subpar effects or the affection Alex and Jose have for each other. Mendez is trying to make a real film with his limited resources and that means taking the scenario at face value, even if the effects don’t hold up. All the humor in the film is based in the character interactions. While their conversations and the situations they face are of a heightened reality, Alex and Jose are reacting in a very real manner to what it happening. Anyone in their situation would be extremely frightened and they respond to their fear by cracking jokes, just as people do in real life. Mendez never allows the characters to wink at the audience and the film is funnier—and by extension, given legitimacy—because the filmmakers and actors never behave as though they are better than what they are making.
Even beyond the rough effects work, Big Ass Spider! has some problems. Despite its short running time, it still feels a little long, taking a bit too much time to get moving in the first act. A subplot about the scientist (Patrick Bauchau) who inadvertently created the spider is never satisfactorily paid off. And Mendez casts the talented Ray Wise and then largely strands him in the colorless role of the military officer in charge of battling the spider.
All quibbles aside, the film is an entertaining homage to ‘50s creature features and a fun showcase for Grunberg and Boyar. Between this film, The Gravedancers, and The Convent, Mendez has shown himself to be a talented filmmaker capable of making something worth watching out of not much. I’d love to see what he can do with the time and resources a decent budget can buy.
Note: I watched the film in the spirit of fun in which it was made. But that does not mean that I agree with the anti-arachnid message at its center. As predators of insects, rodents, and other pests, they are helpful to humans and should be treated with respect. If you see a spider in your home, please do not kill it! Simply ignore it and let it go about its business and it will return the favor.
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