We’re experiencing something of a giant monster revival in popular culture. On the small screen, giant monsters are all the rage, with WTF-worthy concoctions like “Sharknado” and “Ghost Shark” becoming ratings sensations thanks to ingeniously cheesy visual effects and stunt casting, while on the big screen there are things like Guillermo del Toro‘s recent “Pacific Rim,” a kind of endless smorgasbord of giant monster fun (not to be outdone, there will be a “Godzilla” reboot next summer). And somewhere in the middle is “Big Ass Spider,” a movie that cheekily tries to straddle the line between SyFy Channel original film and big screen extravaganza. It’s the kind of movie you wish they still had drive-ins for.
The opening of “Big Ass Spider” approaches brilliance: we watch our hero, pudgy exterminator Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg) awake from a daze. He stumbles through downtown Los Angeles dreamily, in stop motion, as flaming debris falls out of the sky, people run screaming and military personnel with giant guns shoot at something in front of him. The entire sequence is scored to a gauzy cover of The Pixies‘ immortal “Where Is My Mind,” which is pretty much amazing. And then, at the end of the sequence, that something that everyone is either running away from or shooting at is revealed: it’s a colossal spider attacking a skyscraper, its spindly legs stabbing into the concrete and glass. Cue title card (complete with a Tom Wolfe-worthy exclamation mark). That is one big ass spider.
“Big Ass Spider” then flashes back several hours earlier. Alex is the kind of guy who, after fumigating an old lady’s house, is kind enough to accept a fruitcake in return (since the government has yet to mail her “her damn check”). After being bitten by a spider, Alex is sent to the hospital, where he both unsuccessfully hits on a nurse and discovers something even more disturbing: a giant spider roaming the halls of the hospital. Even though the military has already shown up (led by the always delightful Ray Wise), Alex puts himself on the case, employing the hospital’s security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar) to help. Or as Jose puts it, “I could be the Robin to your Batman, the Tonto to your Lone Ranger…”
The two go off on an adventure to stop the giant spider, learn what it is exactly (it has something to do with extraterrestrial DNA we think, which of course lends itself to a “Spiders from Mars” joke) and rescue Lieutenant Karly Brant (Clare Kramer from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“) from the arachnid’s evil clutches. That’s pretty much as far as the movie goes with “plot.” Most of the middle section of the movie is comprised of scenes where the spider is attacking people, including a sequence that is directly lifted from Bong Joon-ho’s classic “The Host” (one of the spider’s first victims? Troma kingpin Lloyd Kaufman) and scenes where Grunberg and Boyar are in the car, chatting about the spider, with Boyar laying on his thickest Mexican accent to unexpectedly hilarious effect.
Unlike the SyFy movies that aim for an intentionally campy tone, thanks largely to their low production budgets and Z-list stars, “Big Ass Spider” actually aims for comedy, instead of the comedy just being a byproduct of its inherent cheapness. And Grunberg and Boyar do make an appropriately odd couple, with Grunberg’s nice guy earnestness contrasting well with Boyar’s more broad “South of the Border” routine. It’s kind of amazing how much of the movie just hands over to their goofy, bro-riffic banter; plot points are covered but it’s mostly in the context of them fucking around. The resulting feel is like what would have happened if Judd Apatow had been called to do last minute rewrites on “Jaws” or something.
Less certain than the movie’s tone are its special effects. The spider itself looks well designed, with a nifty, “armor-plated” style and a mouth with creepy moving mandibles. But often times the spider’s animation lets down the filmmakers’ imagination, especially when they are borrowing liberally from films with much bigger budgets (everything from James Cameron‘s “Aliens” to Frank Darabont‘s “The Mist” to giant ant classic “Them” to Peter Berg‘s unfairly maligned “Battleship“). Not helping matters are the visual effects’ unevenness: one minute you’ll be genuinely dazzled by a special effect or piece of character animation, the next you’ll be wondering if a team of highly trained monkeys were instructed on how to use After Effects and then just left to their own devices.
But, at the end of the day, “Big Ass Spider” is something of a midnight movie triumph. With its tongue placed firmly in cheek (it is, after all, called “Big Ass Spider”), it delivers on a whole bunch of laughs and thrills, in a way that some big budget spectaculars can’t even muster. It wisely shies away from attempting to replicate the shaky, so-bad-it’s-good-vibe of one of those SyFy movies, instead going for the genuine fun of an old B-movie. Director Mike Mendez, who showed a lot of promise with his early feature “The Covenant” but slipped with the groan-worthy “Gravedancers” (2006), is finally making good on that early promise. It’s hard not to get caught up in “Big Ass Spider’s” web; mostly because it’s so rare—a midnight movie with heart. [B]