Big Ass Spider
US (2013) Dir. Mike Mendez
Pest exterminator and spider expert Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg) is at the local hospital after receiving a spider bite to his arm at the same time a group of military officers, led by Major Braxton Tanner (Ray Wise) and Lieutenant Karly Brant (Clare Kramer) arrive at the hospital to reclaim the corpse which was accidentally delivered there. When a morgue worker is bitten by what he claims is a large spider Alex is hired to hunt it down. However Tanner reveals the spider is in fact the accidental result of an experiment involving alien DNA once the now giant arachnid has escaped the hospital and is now feasting on human flesh in downtown LA.
As an arachnophobe I probably shouldn’t have watched this film. Then again I am a sucker for a giant monster movie and despite its low budget credentials opinion was high on this so I caved in and sought it out. As the reviews have correctly proclaimed this is actually well made and exceeds its B-movie budget and status. Director Mike Mendez has a number of similarly obscure titles to his credit, his name mostly recognised in the editing department, yet this film proves he is more than capable of spinning a decent yarn and this is a decent yarn that delivers exactly what it says in the title.
The fact that the titular arachnid is half alien explains its increasing growth during the film and its hunger for human flesh, although it is just as comfortable dousing its victims in acid and wrapping them up in its webbing. Our extrovert hero Alex is happy to play the hero when he thinks his quarry is a regular sized “big” spider unaware of just what really awaits him. Alex is such a fan of spiders that he has one tattooed on his arm and he claims he can think like them. Once the truth is revealed Tanner and his team arrogantly decide Alex has done enough and dismiss him but, spurred on by Mexican security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar), he decides to tag along anyway, hoping his knowledge will benefit the mission.
There are many notable nods to the monster movies of the past present here than keen eyes viewers will have spotted while modern audiences might think them clichés and all too familiar crutches of the convention. At the head of the queue is the spider’s debut appearance. While the lights flicker on and off in the morgue a singular spider leg sneaks out from inside the body bag, with the first attack taking place in the dark. While a hackneyed set-up Mendez does create a sense of palpable tension, repeated again a few scenes later when a near paralysed patient becomes its second victim.
Having had its fill of patrons at a nearby park the spider heads for the city and takes root on top of city hall where it lays its eggs, leading to the obligatory King Kong tribute act as the military lead an air strike against the rampaging monster. Where Kong had Fay Wray, our eight legged horror has Karly, who conveniently is the only victim the spider doesn’t eat or kill. Having unsuccessfully tried to woo the frosty and professional token female, Karly provides a secondary (or primary) motive for Alex to save the day when Tanner finally realises that perhaps he is useful after all.
Obviously the talking point for many film fans will be the effects and how convincing the spider looks. In this age of photo realistic CGI renderings with Hollywood’s mega budgets setting and raising the bar with each passing project, a film of this nature lives and dies by its visual prowess. The good news is that despite the comparatively meagre budget he had to work with Mendez and his SFX crew gives us an admirable looking film with a decent looking main creature. Its movements are certainly well observed and credible while the alien aspect of its make up allows for some liberties to be taken with the unique design. The only time the cheapness is exposed is with some of the explosions, blood shed and other peripheral reaction effects.
Aside from a few continuity errors involving Karly – one minute she is fully made up the next she is make-up free – the production values are consistent and very competent. The camerawork is crisp and well framed, impressing with aerial shots of the spider running wild in the park (complete with scantily clad women being chased and devoured) to the climactic sky-scraping showdown. On the whole one would have to be extremely petty to complain.
It may only be 80 minutes long but it tells it story to completion and packs in a lot of action and developments along the way. It’s a good humoured affair with its tongue firmly in its cheek and Mendez is very much aware of ensuring the audience know this. Dom Joly look-a-alike Alex a wise cracking everyman who acts as the conduit for the audience, confirming the various references and loving homage moments they have already spotted. He also forms a fun team with Jose who manages to stay on the right side of being as token stereotype, contributing a lot to much of the film’s humour. What is slightly infuriating however is how Karly is all tough and independent at the start of the film but slowly, but not completely, devolves into a damsel in distress.
The bottom line is that against all odds Big Ass Spider delivers a whole heap of retro-fun for fans of the giant monster genre while has enough modern flair and energy to appeal to modern audiences. It doesn’t overstretch its ambitions and can’t be mistaken for high art, thus it is easily recommended as a quick escapist fix for the film fan who doesn’t want to have to think for 80 minutes.