I'm a huge fan of spider cinema, and I'm not talking about superhero silliness. I mean flicks like Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo (1977), Kingdom of the Spiders (1978), Arachnophobia (1990), Spiders (2000), Eight Legged Freaks (2002), and a dozen others you've probably never even heard of. Like most people, I have a natural wariness of spiders, but like most horror fans, I love to see the creepy little buggers wreak havoc safely within the world of movies. Of course sometimes the spiders aren't so little, and that's when I know I'm dealing with a flick I'll probably enjoy.
Simply put: one of the most entertaining things about movies is that they can deliver funny stuff that you'd (hopefully) never see in real life, stuff like a giant spider wreaking havoc across Los Angeles as it skewers screaming people with its spindly legs and wraps other victims up in webbing and swallows them whole. Dramas are great and thought-provoking cinema is wonderful, but sometimes a giant spider is all you want. The recent Spiders 3-D was a half-decent appetizer, but Mike Mendez's Big Ass Spider is a full course treat of indie-style horror/comedy.
Let's break it down into bullet points, and hopefully they'll show why a movie like Big Ass Spider is considerably more appealing than most of what passes for an independently-produced monster movie these days, and yes, I'm looking at you, SyFy Channel and Asylum Entertainment. (By the way, the plot is about a super-spider that grows into massive proportions and the jocular exterminator who insists on killing it, much to the chagrin of some military hotheads and a nervous security guard sidekick.)
A. The cast: whereas most modern monster movies go for gimmick casting (remember the one with Debbie Gibson AND Tiffany?), Big Ass Spider offers the very likable Greg Grunberg (Heroes), the very adorable Clare Kramer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the always cool Ray Wise (Dead End), the enjoyably weird Patrick Bauchau (Panic Room), and the highly amusing Lombardo Boyar (The Bernie Mac Show). The ensemble plays the material with tongues firmly in cheek but never goes too far and turns a silly movie into a self-aware (or stupid) one.
B. The special effects: it used to be that "low-budget CGI" was always identifiable as such because it looked so damn fake. That is clearly no longer the case. Big Ass Spider never once looks like a $60 million giant spider movie, but it does offer a whole lot of digital eye-candy that's pretty damn impressive. Whether it's a dog-sized spider chomping on a guy's face or a zeppelin-sized arachnid stomping across L.A. highways and chomping people left and right, the digitally-created mayhem is rather a lot of fun.
C. The tone: it would be pretty difficult (not to mention dumb) to make a serious film about a giant spider attack, but that doesn't mean your movie has to be endlessly stupid, self-mocking, or cynical. The best monster movies are made by filmmakers with obvious affection for the sub-genre, and it certainly seems that director Mendez and screenwriter Greg Gieras have that section covered. Grunberg and Boyar strike a great comedic chemistry, Kramer and Wise bring a knowing wink to their roles as authority figures, and the violence is raucous and gory without ever becoming too ugly or mean-spirited.
D. The little extra effort: a fantastic score by Ceiri Torjussen that evokes monster themes from the classics and brings a touch of wide-scale class to a very little movie. A willingness to show the titular monster, in its full glory, frequently and enthusiastically. (In other words: no hiding the giant spider because it was too expensive to animate.) Several satirical little jabs at Los Angeles that add a few chuckles in between the ones provided by Grunberg and Boyar.
Call it slight or silly, but don't call it stupid. Judged solely on the scale of Giant Spider Cinema, the slick and satisfying Big Ass Spider ranks surprisingly high -- partially because a lot of those movies stink, but mainly because this one does not. If you like giant spider movies, you'll definitely dig Big Ass Spider.