Film Army at Toronto After Dark ’13: Nostalgic Creature Features

First of all, it’s noteworthy to mention that the second evening of Toronto After Dark started on time. This was much appreciated since the night before suffered from over-length and poor time keeping with the first screening running into the next one. It’s good to see a festival team pick up the slack so quickly.

Toronto After Dark programmer Justin McConnell launched onto the stage and joyously welcomed the giddy audience, who were all ready to watch a night full of bug themed flicks. After a short and sweet intro, the lights dimmed and the presentation commenced.

First was a brief short about Dracula catching up with the times… by visiting an old school video store, which, I suppose, is pretty amusing to think about afterwards. The sudden appearance of an Edward Cullen lookalike was missing the “punch” in the punchline and came off as a bit dated, but it was a good lead-in to the Canadian short film preceding the main attraction.

The Last Video Store (DIR. Cody Kennedy & Tim Rutherford)

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Speaking of tonight’s bug theme, the one big glare that bugged me in Cody Kennedy and Tim Rutherford’s The Last Video Store was the acting by both male leads.

Kennedy and Rutherford are doing everything in their directorial power to emphasize the opposites in each of these personalities. Even if that means literally shoving the camera in the actor’s face. But the exasperated performances and camera work is to no avail and only makes the on-screen chemistry more awkward.

One guy’s an eccentric hermit who owns and runs one of the only video stores left in existence and the other man is a straight-laced courier who had no idea cassette tapes existed.

The clerk is nailing every single mannerism you’d expect out of a wrestler championing for a prize winning belt in the WWF. Even for a film that’s as outlandish as The Last Video Store, it still feels as if this peculiar character is laying it on too thick, while our courier looks as if he’s uncomfortable in front of the lens.

The Last Video Store, however, gradually becomes better and better leading to a final showdown with a killer television that’s unreal and an absolute blast. Things quickly get out of hand and gory, but it’s all in good fun as Kennedy and Rutherford deliver action and unhinged nostalgia.

The killer creature brought to life by a golden VHS is exuberant in its design and a riot when it comes to taunting and weaponry. Also, to those lovers of anything cult oriented: the film definitely has an Astron-6 sheen to it. Hell, Manborg’s Steven Kostanski even lent his imaginative hands to the stop-motion animation.

Cody Kennedy and Tim Rutherford’s premise and humour feel forced during the start-up. But even though it takes a while for The Last Video Store to find its stride, it lands on its feet with pleasing results all while being accompanied by a killer song.

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After The Last Video Store was a video introduction to our next film. Mike Mendez, director of Big Ass Spider!, popped up on screen to greet the audience and express his regret for not being at TAD.

Mendez, who came across as a swell guy who loves every bit of his movie, was very personable with pumping the audience up for his film. However, he added that perhaps drinking a few beers or taking a bong hit beforehand may heighten the experience of the B-movie homage even more.

Hmm…

Big Ass Spider! (DIR. Mike Mendez)

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Nowadays, I think filmmakers have to be careful with how they describe their movie that homages a certain era or cheesy genre.

Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but when a director describes their movie as an homage of giant monster movies from the ’50s, we can’t help but think of other ones that didn’t fare so well or came up short. That’s because we can’t help but think of how those other flicks used corny tropes as a crutch to lean on whenever their film was running out of steam.

It’d be too bad if Big Ass Spider! was lumped in with those lackluster creature features, because it’s good. Like, really good. Good in a way that you want to instantly tell your friends about it as soon as the credits roll.

This film is a bundle of fun and not in a way where we’re laughing at the certain genre it’s lampooning. The likeable performances and the happy-go-lucky charm in Mike Mendez’s direction and Gregory Gieras’ screenplay give this sucker the gas it needs to last its speedy 80-minute runtime.

Despite it not falling in a cinematic pit of obscurity, Big Ass Spider! has everything you’d expect from a B-movie – including the title arachnid. There’s our lead gung-ho Joe Schmoe (played with great comedic zest by Greg Grunberg, who’s essentially portraying a more charismatic and less obnoxious character of Vince Vaughn’s), unthinkable deaths, and mass downtown destruction.

And, you can’t forget about the appearance of the military (led by Ray Wise playing Major Braxton Tanner), a doctor who specializes in spiders, jump scares, bikini-clad babes playing volleyball, and an obligatory Lloyd Kaufman cameo.

Big Ass Spider! and Mendez succeed with their proper intentions of wanting to deliver thrilling entertainment and not something that can only be scoffed at because of its ludicrous audacity. They know everything is crazy, but they want to work for their laughs and scares. It’s a quality that’s sorely missed in the recent work of Robert Rodriguez.

Another area where Big Ass Spider! wipes the floor with a film like Machete Kills is in its depiction of its characters. We want to root for Grunberg’s hapless exterminator because he represents an everyday male, he’s funny, and he’s a smart guy. His partner Jose Ramos (a Mexican security guard played hilariously by Lombardo Boyar) could’ve been a blatant stereotype wrung dry for fish-out-of-water jokes, but almost all of Jose’s amusements stem from his blissful ignorance and excitement regarding what’s going on around him.

The cheap effects during the film’s first half and that memorable title are fitting, but hopefully they don’t undercut the quality of the movie. The effects develop into something more substantial as we see more cataclysmic action making us ditch that element of skepticism.

Don’t let that well-intentioned filmmaker fool you though. Having some beers or toking up before watching Big Ass Spider! may ensure more hysteria during the movie, but the film is perfectly fine and comes through with flying colours if you’re simply watching this sober with a crowd wanting to have a lot of legitimate fun. This is a textbook definition of perfect fare for Toronto After Dark.

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