It always puzzles me when a particular genre film becomes a sensation, whether deserved or not, while another better option opens in the same time period only to fall into the abyss of obscurity. Two 2013 releases typify this and the better known one is, as stated, the lesser of the two.
When Sharknado hit SyFy, I spent the night on Twitter watching the film, or rather the reactions to it. With a budget of roughly $25 and a bag of drugs, the production company responsible, The Asylum, unleashed a film of man-eating sharks dropped on an unsuspecting world courtesy of a swarm of tornadoes all brought to life by CGI one step removed from an Amiga. SyFy marketed it aggressively.
But it was on social media, specifically Twitter, that the film took off. Everyone’s stunned reactions, from CNN anchors to actual weather people to celebrities, launched the film’s success far beyond what even the filmmakers could have dreamed. Heck, the writer himself even tweeted out that he was experiencing a truly surreal night based on the feedback.
But another gem was available, yet the same sense of enthusiasm wasn’t there. I remembered catching a piece of it at the time, but didn’t think much of it until I rediscovered it on Amazon Prime. And oh my holy God, is Big Ass Spider! 10 times the film “Sharknado” and its spawn could ever hope to be.
The film centers on Alex Mathis, a spider-squashing exterminator played to the hilt by Greg Grunberg. Mathis may be on his day off, but that’s no excuse to avoid hunting down a dangerous new type of spider discovered in a hospital morgue. While there, he partners with security guard Jose (Lombardo Boyar) and together they soon realize they’re both pretty ill-equipped to deal with a spider the size of a small cat. Soon, a military deployment appears, led by Major Braxton (Ray Wise) and Lt. Karly Brant (Clare Kramer), and reveals that the spider won’t stay so small for long, and that they bear responsibility for it.
The spider escapes into the city where the expected carnage and chaos ensue. It’s up to the intrepid heroes of this silly little tale to hunt down one big ass spider(!) before it lays its eggs and devours all of Los Angeles and eventually the world. There’s not much more to it plot wise, but this is a gem of a zany horror-comedy with some genuinely surprising depth.
Yes, this film is gloriously unrepentant in its stupidity and I love it all the more because of that. It isn’t a film where everyone winks at the camera either, which makes it even funnier. Actors play it as earnest as possible. Heck, the energy of an exciting and silly time is what kicks the film off. The opening shot sold me on it and I was not disappointed. Watch as many films as the average critic or film lover and you’ll pick up on whether or not a film has the right sort of energy for its specific tale. Fortunately, “Big Ass Spider” delivers the goods from the word go.
Look at the poster and you’ll most likely laugh at the silliness of it, and trust me the film is plenty goofy. When the titular monster attacked a park, I laughed at the awfulness of the CGI and the comedy of people being horribly killed by such a goofy monster. Then Grunberg and Boyar re-centered the film on their attempts to solve this monster problem, and I couldn’t keep myself from smiling. There’s an infectious amount of spirit and good will towards the characters that it’s almost impossible to not have a fun time while watching.
The real shame is that Grunberg isn’t in more films as the lead. His Mathis struggles to live up to his inflated sense of self, yet doesn’t shirk from charging headlong into battle against a monster spider. It’s his job, he reckons, danger be damned, and he treats it as just another day. The Everyman character that Grunberg inhabits is perfect, and his genial personality makes you root for him to save the world, if for no other reason than it’d be fun to hear his embellishment of the events over a beer.
He’s relatable with his daily struggles, but it’s nothing cliched like having to make alimony payments to an ex that hates him and has alienated his child. He’s a blue collar guy doing a job, and trying to get by day after day, and through it all he keeps his sense of humor on point and his focus on being the best exterminator there is.
When he meets up with Jose, the more clownish of the two by far, there’s a connection that makes the already funny movie begin to sing. Grunberg and Boyar are a terrific pair who nimbly bounce off one another.
God bless Ray Wise for hurling himself at the role of Major Braxton, a no-nonsense military leader who is fully aware of the situation they all find themselves in and that he’s responsible. Wise could have gone as over-the-top as Brando in “Apocalypse Now” but he doesn’t. Braxton is a soldier with a responsibility to his superiors and to the men and women under his command, and he takes both very seriously. Wise never curls his lip or twists his metaphorical mustache. Braxton isn’t locked onto a predetermined course to meet his end at the hands of his creation, either. He knows the challenge they’re all up against, but is willing to listen to and work with a ringer he never expected – Mathis.
It’s the theme of regular Joe’s working their regular jobs who are confronted with the extraordinary and have to rise above the perceived smallness of their lives in order to achieve greatness that elevates “Big Ass Spider” more than I thought possible. The film smartly keeps its characters focused on their goals without drowning in pathos or hubris. Too many low budget films aim for the stars by trying to elevate the material to a higher plane of reality.
Spoiler – “Big Ass Spider” is never going to be on the same playing field as either “Jaws” or “Aliens.” But you know what? It doesn’t have to compete with those, and many blessings upon the filmmakers for keeping this story on the rails. I laughed, I enjoyed the characters and the challenges they had to work to overcome, and I loved the design of the giant alien spider. That’s more than enough for me to heartily recommend this goofy-as-hell movie as a fun way to spend 90 minutes.