The fate of Los Angeles — and maybe mankind — rests in the hands of a single lowly exterminator in “Big Ass Spider!,” an exceedingly good-natured Z-grade creature feature that finds Angel City under attack by a quite literal spider from Mars. Made with tongue welded firmly to cheek, loads of affection for big rubbery monsters, and some surprisingly accomplished bargain-basement effects, director Mike Mendez’s fifth schlock feature is strictly for genre buffs who’ll delight at the sight of Troma impresario Lloyd Kaufman get devoured by a giant arachnid — as well as anyone who found “Sharknado” a bit too highbrow for their taste. Many worse ways to spend 80 minutes can easily be imagined.
Surely when Walter Scott wrote “Oh, what a tangled web we weave,” he wasn’t picturing a Kong-sized black widow capable of cocooning an adult human in a matter of seconds — or tearing one to pieces with its telephone-pole pincers. This steroidal beastie starts out not quite itsy-bitsy, but at least more manageably sized, when it first crawls out of a body bag (and, before that, a body) in the basement morgue of an L.A. hospital.
Fortuitously, friendly neighborhood bug man Alex (Greg Grunberg) happens to be cooling his heels in the ER after getting bitten on the job, and happily sets off in search of the offending critter. A self-professed spider expert, Alex doesn’t merely hunt his prey, he says; he enters into its mind, becomes one with the spider, like an entymological Caine from “Kung Fu.” (Los Angeles viewers may take special pleasure in noting that Alex hails from the venerable Western Exterminator Co., known for the iconic neon sign adorning its Hollywood headquartes.)
He’s eventually joined by a military contingent lead by a leggy blond Lieutenant (Clare Kramer) and an iron-jawed Major (Ray Wise) who know more about the bug’s unusual origins than they first let on, plus a desiccated Eurotrash scientist (amusingly played by Patrick Bauchau as if he were in fact doing “Death in Venice”). Meanwhile, the more the spider eats, the bigger she gets, and the bigger she gets, the hungrier she gets. And did we mention she’s pregnant?
“Big Ass Spider!” never scales the ecstatic heights of the very best scary-funny creep-out movies, like Joe Dante’s “Piranha” and James Gunn’s delirious “Slither,” but it has a winning, can-do spirit, and the actors strike just the right note of being in on the joke without sneering at the material — especially Grunberg (“Heroes,” “Alias”), who plays Adam as a kind of latter-day Ralph Kramden, a blue-collar dreamer with a hero complex who finally gets his moment to shine. And at every turn, Mendez and VFX supervisor Asif Iqbal have a lot of fun setting their eight-legged star loose on crowds of unsuspecting commuters, Sunday picnickers, et al.
Though the effects are far from high-end, the spider itself has been lovingly rendered in a herky-jerky fashion meant to recall the stop-motion effects of pioneers like Ray Harryhaysen and Phil Tippett, and skillfully inserted into cleanly composed frames void of too much other CGI ephemera. Sure, if you look closely at the crumbling downtown skyscrapers you may note the same sections crumbling over and over again, but somehow it’s all of a charmingly low-fi piece.