Ever since Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s dual homage to ’70s exploitation movies, there’s been a glut of genre films that aspire to the “so bad it’s good” B-movie model. Black Dynamite, Zombie Strippers, and even the Grindhouse offspring Machete imitate vintage grindhouse but are fraudulent in comparison, their self-conscious snark the antithesis of such serious-minded but ultimately inane films like Black Godfather and Re-Animator. The creature feature Big Ass Spider! is the latest addition to this trend, though it’s closer to recent sci-fi cable TV movies like Sharknado than sleazy exploitation fare.
It seems irrelevant to synopsize a film called Big Ass Spider! (like Snakes on a Plane, its title knowingly doubles as a one-line plot summary), but here goes anyway. Alex Mathis (Greg Grunberg), a kindhearted exterminator who often works for free, visits a Los Angeles emergency room after being bitten on the job. While he’s upstairs receiving treatment (and flirting with his buxom nurse), the mortician downstairs is attacked by a vicious spider burrowed inside a dead body. Alex, a self-proclaimed spider expert, sets out to find and exterminate the baddie, but quickly learns that this is no ordinary arachnid. Rather, it’s a government experiment gone wrong, and the U.S. military, alongside a quirky scientist (Patrick Bauchau) who explains that the spider will grow in size the more it kills, quickly descends upon the scene. As the bodies pile up and the spider balloons, the film become a monster movie by way of a sci-fi actioner, something like Tremors meets Independence Day.
Director Mike Mendez fancies his film a satire, but he has nothing incisive to say about genre. Whereas Edgar Wright’s high-concept genre films are meta-commentaries that derive humor from characterization and theme, Big Ass Spider! plays like an overblown pop-culture quote-a-thon, proudly winking at the camera as it references everything from YouTube viral videos to Call of Duty to Steven Spielberg, or embellishing the cheesy overtones of its premise in a manner that tells the audience, “Don’t worry, we know this is stupid.”
And therein lies the film’s most fatal flaw. What Big Ass Spider! has in dopey excess it lacks in sincerity, something the bargain-bin “trash” of yore had in spades. By its very definition, camp is useless when applied knowingly, yet many young genre directors seem to think differently. Movies like Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp and Rene Daalder’s Massacre at Central High, however dated, amateurish, or unintentionally comical, at least displayed a genuine interest in film form. Meanwhile, movies like Big Ass Spider! and its ilk (Bitch Slap, Hobo with a Shotgun, etc.) actively contradict themselves by admonishing the ambition of the aesthetes they wish to honor and misconstruing their eccentricities as deficiencies—or worse, they implement camp with a false sense of superiority, positing themselves as progressive because of their intentionality. This paradox is on grand display in Big Ass Spider!, a film that all but begs its lack of seriousness be taken seriously.