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Big Ass Spider!

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/14/13 15:37:51

"It's a lot of fun when a movie about a big-ass spider doesn't half-ass it."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: Well, there's certainly no denying that "Big Ass Spider!" delivers what it promises - that is certainly one big-ass spider menacing Los Angeles from the very start. For those that want maybe a little more to their movies, it's at least got a fairly charismatic cast and a crew that both recognizes that monster movies should be fun and is able to reach that goal.

Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg) is in pest control, and is in fact brilliant at it, though he still winds up in the emergency room with a spider bite after a customer panics. That's fortuitous, though, because an unusually large spider has arrived there inside a corpse, and the administrators put him and janitor Jose Ramos (Lombardo Boyar) to work finding it. They're soon joined by the army in the persons of Major Braxton Tanner (Ray Wise), Lieutenant Karly Brant (Clare Kramer), and Lucas (Patrick Bauchau), a scientist who knows that this thing's not going to stop growing at "unusually large".

Well, we know that from the start, which gives us a preview of the last act with pumped-up dramatics and a cool song on the soundtrack before doing the twelve-hours-earlier thing. It more or less lays out what the audience can expect from the next hour and a half: An everyman hero, decent but not incredible special effects, and the filmmakers playing with their genre but not stooping to making fun of it. That's a crucial difference, because Big Ass Spider! is a throwback to the monster movies of the fifties and sixties, and while a fair amount of "homages" to that period come out, most recreate the surface warts and all while making fun of folks doing the best they can with limited resources as opposed to doing the best they can to create the same sort of thrills with modern-day resources.

One area where they're clearly ahead of their predecessors is the cast. Greg Grunberg is a familiar face (supporting and lead-ensemble parts on a couple of successful TV shows will do that), so it's hardly a surprise when he breaks out an easy charm and quick wit even when playing a character who can be a bit of a schmuck. He's good at working off special effects and even better at playing off Lombardo Boyar. Boyar's not really a familiar face but hopefully will become one soon enough; he takes a Mexican stereotype of a character and doesn't so much subvert it as become the best possible version of it - sure, he's got the accent and occasionally lapses into Spanglish, but he and Grunberg apparently had great fun improvising and riffing off each other, so he never gets a cheap laugh as opposed to a well-earned one. Ray Wise, meanwhile, is simply incapable of playing a straight authority figure without having a bit of fun; even if clipped military speak sounds natural in his voice, it's no surprise when a little bit of a rebel shows up too. Clare Kramer manages to find a way to make Karly both very much a professional soldier and, well, nice; the crush Alex has on her won't require a complete tossing-away of her original personality to return.

Director Mike Mendez and writer Gregory Gieras also know their horror movie stuff - while we know just how big this spider is going to get, they still manage to build nifty set-pieces for it at every scale between regular-size and titanic, hitting all the classics from crawling around a dark and wet sewer to an open-air rampage in a park to kaiju-style massive property damage. Mendez also has great instincts on what will make a given scene the most fun - sometimes, it's a nasty gross-out while other times its a shot of the characters reacting to the grossest thing the audience can imagine; he also tends to figure right from one moment to the next in the middle of an action scene whether the audience will have a better reaction to someone becoming spider chow or just barely escaping.

On a technical level, Big Ass Spider! is mostly pretty good but also kind of in-between. The effects are just not in the same category as movies which can spend dozens to hundreds of times more than this film's producers can on the way to a massive multiplex release, but they're also better than one might expect from the SyFy/direct-to-video fodder that it appears to be from its title (which is a marked improvement from the more generic "Megaspider" it started out as). It's got a few hiccups, both in the production hitting the limits of what it's capable of and the script, but the filmmakers get things right much more often than not.

And not to downplay ambition, but a movie called "Big Ass Spider!" doesn't have to do much more than hit the right notes with some skill. It's just that so often, the effort and talent aren't there, so it's a nice surprise when the inevitable tease of a sequel winds up being more something worth hoping for than an implied threat.

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