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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 1: Arachnia (2003)

Written and directed by Brett Piper

Rob Monkiewicz:  Sean Pachowski
Irene Joseph:  Chandra Weaver (yes, there's a character named Weaver in a giant spider movie)
David Bunce:  Professor Mugford
James Aspden:  Moses Cobb

It's HubrisWeen time again, which means I'm going to be publishing two dozen and change reviews in the month of October, from A to Z. It's hard to avoid zombies when you get to the end of that list--especially if you're using Halloween appropriate movies, but I'm a little surprised that it took me three years of this marathon to get to a spider movie for the first one out. Special thanks to Sean Frost of "Web of the Big Damn Spider" for loaning me his copy of this film, which I quite enjoyed.

If I'd known this one was written and directed by the auteur responsible for A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell, I never would have watched it. Thankfully, it's a vast improvement in every conceivable way over that long-titled movie (having watched it at a B movie night with an old gaming group, my review of it was "Every word in the title other than 'A' was a goddamned lie"). But filmmaking is a craft, and it is possible to improve one's proficiency at a craft through practice, and Brett Piper certainly did that. This one's a perfectly serviceable monster movie with some genuinely well-thought out bits in the script, and charmingly retro monsters realized via cheap stop-motion rather than cheap CGI. That means a lot to a guy like me--it's nice when I can tell the people making the movie are fans of the genre rather than just people trying to cash in (contemplate the 1998 American Godzilla on the Tree of Woe for an example of paycheck-priotizing in genre filmmaking).

The film introduces its main cast admirably quickly:  Six people in a small airplane flying through a meteor shower. There's the comic-relief stoner Deke, ditzes Trina and Kelly, and then the characters who get last names:  laptop-toting grumpy authority figure Professor Mugford, sensible and intelligent (and black, somewhat of a novelty for horror flicks) Chandra Weaver and Sean Pachowski, the pilot of the cramped twin-engine aircraft. Chandra goes to the cockpit to ask the pilot to dodge the meteorites--and get away from the irritatingly dim Trina and Kelly--and provide a little exposition. The prof is going on a dig in a remote location in Arizona, so he needs a plane ride. Chandra is his personal assistant, Deke is a grad student going along on the dig and Trina and Kelly are sleeping with Mugford in exchange for grades good enough to get them a diploma.

In the cockpit (which means they could shoot two actors that day instead of five), Chandra and Sean chitchat about the fossil of a previously unknown dinosaur that Mugford's colleague has found and engage in a little bit of preliminary flirting. Also, Sean reveals that he knows what "theropod" means and I like that the eventual monsters that show up will be completely unrelated to the opening chitchat. If I ever write a killer bug screenplay, the opening scientific lecture will be about shark cartilage. Anyway, Chandra wants assurance that a meteorite isn't going to hit their plane. Sean assures her that it's an amazingly remote possibility. There's a disaster right after he says that, of course, but it isn't the cheap irony that viewers are almost certainly expecting. Instead of one of the engines immediately getting holed by a space rock, a close impact results in a shockwave (and possibly an EMP as well) that forces the plane down. And there's some nice CG work done mixed in with the model of the plane breaking apart. The filmmakers had a small budget but they spent it quite wisely; it's a better plane crash than the Atlas Shrugged films managed to provide, and undoubtedly for much less money.

Deke managed to sleep through the entire crash (possibly aided by Better Ignoring Imminent Disaster Through Chemistry). He wakes up first, sees Mugford and the ditzes out cold, smells spilled aviation fuel and bugs out through a window. He runs away and dives to the ground, expecting a fireball (which does not arrive, even though the viewer's primed to expect one from the way the shot's set up). He gets back up in order to panic-flail his way behind a tree, still not doing anything to help the other survivors. Chandra and Pachowski wake up next, take command of the situation and get everyone out of the crashed plane before it bursts into flames (but doesn't explode, possibly for budgetary reasons). Trina and Kelly assume that the stoner's still in the burning plane and he realizes that everyone's going to think he's a panicky asshole once they find him. He fakes an injured ankle from being "thrown from the wreckage" and takes the opportunity to grope Kelly and Trina while they support him while walking away. Looks like we have our Odious Comic Relief for the film. Hooray?

Mugford ups his Jerk Rating to about seven or so when he criticizes Pachowski for crashing after the shockwave knocked the plane out of the sky ("It was my first meteor, all right? Give me a break."). They're fifty miles or so from civilization with no supplies, so it's time to get moving towards civilization and hopefully find something on the way to take care of food and water. Mugford blows his stack at Kelly and Trina's constant complaining right before a red-tinted POV camera stalks the group. Before either the professor's anger or the POV creature can be further developed, the group finds an abandoned cabin equipped with a wood-burning stove and a pump in the kitchen, so at least they won't be freezing or dying of thirst. The discovery of some fine aged moonshine in a two-gallon jug means there's something other than water to drink as well. There's also a zinc bathtub, which means that one of the obligatory bimbos wants to take a bath; congratulations, filmmakers! You've figured out how to provide gratuitous nudity before the eighteen minute mark (although Pachowski makes sure none of the male characters are going to leer at the women; he's got good intentions but when the door panel falls down everyone in the cast gets a good luck at the brunette in the tub). And I have to say I'm not as conversant with Sleaze History as I should be for all the B movies I watch, but I'm guessing the girl-on-girl shoulder rubbing and splash fight while Trina takes a bath marks it as relatively recent prurient content rather than something from the 70s, or even the 80s.

Meanwhile, the POV creature returns to menace some cattle penned up near the cabin (and the red-tinted POV sequences show a giant spider's face, which means there's either more than one of them running around or the director didn't realize that the MonsterCam shots shouldn't be able to show the monster). Deke decides he can't take listening to the pair of nubile women splashing and giggling in the next room any more and stomps outside, leaving the three grownups to get on each others' nerves in the living room. He's not looking for arrowheads; he's peeking in on the woman in the tub. The movie kinda wants to have its cake and eat it too in this scene, showing an asshole character grooving on the nudity while still showing plenty of it for the discerning monster flick viewer who knows what he wants. His reverie is interrupted by a cranky old farmer putting a shotgun to the back of his head, but it's way too early to even think about offing the Odious Comic Relief.

The cranky old farmer is Moses Cobb, and he's not thrilled to find half a dozen squatters in his rundown cabin ("Who'd live in a shithole like this? But I own it just the same.") and threatens to shoot Sean twice in the first minute he shows up. Judging from the way he resorts to "I have a gun so I make the rules" so frequently, I'm guessing his cattle are grazing on Federal land but he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in grazing fees. Cobb and the viewer get a long, leering look at the bathing bimbo (complete with sleazy sax music on the score) when he looks into the other room and his stance on trespassers changes considerably.

The film's Expository Casualty shows up next; an unnamed dude in a pickup truck has one line of dialogue ("I hate spiders!") before a massive stop-motion arachnid climbs over his ride, and I'm presuming he's out of the movie now. It warms my heart to see the use of stop-motion effects rather than cheap CGI at this point. It's not any more convincing than a CGI Big Damn Spider would be, but it means the director's heart is in the right place. Lots of old creature features used stop-motion to realize their otherworldly creatures, and by using that outmoded technique for this film Brett Piper is claiming kinship with the people who brought King Kong, Gwangi, and the ED-209 to life. That's a good crowd to be in.

Back at the cabin, Moses is considerably less of an asshole with some of that moonshine in his system (he thinks it's decades old; either his father or grandfather originally brewed it). He says he's seen the meteor storm that downed their plane and considers them all incredibly lucky to be alive and unharmed after the crash. When he finds out that Mugford was going to an archaeological dig he tells the group that he's got a really cool thing for experts in weird creatures to gawk at (resorting to the gun again when Mugford tries to blow him off). In a barn, Cobb's got some bales of hay and a banner touting "The Amazing Hell Spider", as well as a tarp covering a big lumpy shape in the middle of the floor. Once he collects the rather reasonable viewing fee of ten cents per (male) gawker, he reveals the body of a Big Damn Spider and explains that his grandfather used to take it to county fairs and charge rubes a dime to stare at it. Cobb says he never found out what exactly the beast was, and hopes that Mugford knows something about it since he's a college type. Mugford declares that it's nothing more than an arachnoid Feejee Mermaid after only a glance at the thing.

Cobb, more than a little miffed at Mugford's dickishness, returns to his story and says that the Hell Spider was too dangerous to exhibit, especially because it almost escaped from its cage a few times. And the prof isn't completely wrong--he notes peeling paint on the "spider" and Cobb admits to some cosmetic alterations to the creature's body after it died. The farmer had the modest dream of getting a museum to pay him for the specimen, but Mugford points out several reasons why a Big Damn Spider the size of a giant tortoise wouldn't be able to live--and he's right. Any arachnid that size wouldn't be able to move under its own power or breathe; the square-cube law means that prehistoric giant dragonflies are about as big as That Sort of Thing is ever likely to get. I'm heartily grateful for that, since I don't like spiders.

The talks break down between Cobb and Mugford completely, but the farmer does promise to drive everyone into town the next morning. As a last bit of understandable pettiness, Cobb tells the professor that he's sleeping in the barn with the "fake" Hell Spider. Deke turns out to snore like a chainsaw, irritating the hell out of Sean; in another bedroom, Chandra can't sleep because of the Bimbo Giggle-Fest(tm) going on in the neighboring room. The application of the Pissed-Off Mom Voice quells the idiocy for about twenty seconds, but we do get the obligatory "underwear pillow fight" scene followed by some saxophone heavy but otherwise non-explicit sex between the bimbos interrupted by a gigantic spider crawling down the wall; it turns out there's more than one Hell Spider in the region, though Cobb thinks it's his state fair prop returned to life.

Back indoors, it turns out that Sean didn't catch sight of the monster, and tries to tell everyone that nothing unusual is happening (Chandra:  "There's nothing out there and you saw it?"); inside the barn, Mugford takes a closer look at the Hell Spider after Cobb shoots in and realizes that if it's a fake, it's one with a complete set of internal organs. In the morning, Farmer Cobb treats himself to biscuits and whiskey, the breakfast of alcoholic champions. He asks Sean if the pilot can use a gun, and drops a little exposition about his grandfather finding the old Hell Spider a century past after an earthquake. After the meteor storm, another one showed up. It's the crazy old gun-toting drunkard's theory that anything that shakes up the underground spider lair gets them all riled up and drives them to the surface. Sounds legit. Cobb plans to check out the meteor crash site and see if there really are gigantic spiders from beneath the Earth's surface, using Sean as backup and Chandra volunteers herself as additional backup over Cobb's jackassed protestations. The farmer drives off before Chandra can hop in his standard issue battered pickup truck, because he is a dick.

At a pretty cool sloping sandy crater in the middle of the forest, Cobb and Sean make their way into a cave tunnel looking for spider monsters; Sean points out that the cave looks like it was dug the day before, which is either proof of giant spider beasts or a knock on the film's budget. During the thirty seconds it takes Sean to get a flashlight from the truck, Cobb vanishes (which is only to be expected). He staggers out of the darkness, wounded in a budget-conscious way, and gets killed by a stop-motion Big Damn Spider while Sean finds out that the beast is immune to shotgun rounds. He drives back to Cobb's house and calls a general meeting to tell everyone that there are spider-beasts around and they need to leave (but doesn't tell anyone what's actually going on so there's plenty of idiotic banter before the seriousness of the emergency can be explained.

Oh, and Mugford's in the barn doing a rough examination of the Hell Spider, because he's a scientist and can believe what's in front of his eyes when he sees it. He sends Deke to get the pickup truck so they can haul the dead spider away to a lab or museum; Deke, being the comic relief stoner, locks himself in the car so Sean can't haul him out for the escape. There's a nice "see that Sean is freaking out about something else that Deke isn't looking at" shot before the stop-motion Big Damn Spider lands on the truck's roof. The film earns my gratitude by killing the Odious Comic Relief off in the most painful and horrifying manner it could afford. Thanks, movie!

Sean and the other survivors (minus the professor, who is still in the barn) run back inside Cobb's house and Sean locks the front door in a charmingly optimistic view of how safe it's going to be in there. Turns out spider beast creatures don't like being stabbed in the eye, so Chandra saves the bimbos' lives when one tries to bust in through a window. And Chandra even sympathizes with Deke, because getting ripped to pieces by giant spiders is a horrible, horrible way to check out (no matter how much the audience might have been rooting for it). The truck's been wrecked (a pair of quarter-ton arachnids beating it up will do that) and Mugford returns to the farmhouse to be a useless panicky academic, his assigned role by the Council of Monster Flicks.

Once he's back in the farmhouse, Mugford points out that the spiders might need living beings to serve as hosts for big bundles of spider eggs (with a paralyzed human providing a tasty and nutritious snack for the little hatchlings when they wake up). I don't know about any spider species that do that (though there is a wasp that lays eggs in tarantulas), but my degree's in film studies. And if the spiders yanked Farmer Cobb off into the darkness without killing him, they might well have him webbed up in a corner as a convenient meal for the future next generation of spider spawn.

Sean wants to bury all the parts of Deke he can find as a way to show decency to the horrible little shit; Mugford refuses to go outside and cover him with the shotgun but Chandra signs up (and also points out that the gun is empty, which Sean didn't even notice). I like that the Ash in this film is a black woman; ordinarily woman or nonwhites don't get to be the hero. Back in the barn, Sean discovers a shovel, the federally required survival horror  emergency chainsaw and a crate of dynamite (apparently Cobb was a resourceful old coot). The pilot digs a hole and drops the Glad-bagged remains of the movie's Jar Jar in there but doesn't fill in the hole; then he and Chandra return to the house just in time for one of the bimbos to whack Sean in the head with a frying pan when he walks through an interior door (their conception of an effective defense strategy is a little bit terrible).

Everyone assembled, Sean starts trying to plan a way to live through the giant spider invasion. It's sixty miles to the nearest town and the truck is damaged beyond usability. And they're cut off, because Cobb doesn't have a phone (cue every cast member but Sean hauling out their cell phones, which makes this film extremely forward-looking, plus it startled a genuine bark of laughter out of me). One Bob Newhart phone call to 911 later, the emergency dispatch service hangs up on Sean because he's raving about giant spiders and meteor strikes. Chandra tries something a bit less doomed to fail and calls her dad, who she refers to as "Colonel Weaver". She affects a panicky voice when she gets in touch with him and says that Mugford tried to assault her after the plane crash and hangs up, claiming a low battery, after giving her approximate location. Turns out her father is in the Air Force and will move heaven and earth to rescue his daughter, but he won't believe her reports of spider monsters. Now it's time to fortify the house and try to avoid dying.

Mugford figures out that the spiders are social animals (unlike most species in the real world, I think, but spiders creep me out so I couldn't tell you for sure). That means that the two spiders that killed Deke (hooray!) will be able to tell the rest of the spider colony that there are some free-range incubators in the farmhouse waiting to get ensnared and dragged back to the nest. That's definitely something to be worried about, but Sean doesn't want a drag on the morale from a drunken pessimist and threatens a hellacious beating if he won't stop screwing with everyone. The goofy piano tinkling score during that scene distracted me pretty badly; I'm betting it was royalty-free library music that was the best bad option. The survivors devote their time and energy to boarding up the farmhouse after Mugford says the spiders are probably going to hibernate since it's cold out (better safe than sorry, and better productive than sitting around worrying). Sean gets stuck digging a trench out front that they're planning to fill with gasoline and use the Leiningen Technique if the spiders come back (they might be bulletproof but hopefully they're still flammable). There's also enough empty glass bottles around that Molotov cocktails are on the evening's menu.

Sean and Chandra wind up on top of the farmhouse's roof at night, watching for giant spiders and drinking coffee. Sean's actually got a really good plan for standing off the monsters--constant vigilance and then three stages of defense involving the shotgun, fire trench, and gasoline bombs if they show up. The rescue flights are certainly on their way, so as far as Chandra and Sean can figure, they just have to live through the night and wait for superior firepower in the morning. Sean also sends Chandra down to the house because he trusts her to behave sensibly and not set the entire place on goddamned fire if things get bad. For all the broad acting and stereotypical secondary characters, the two leads have a nice and relaxed chemistry together and it's nice to watch them in the quieter moments. Usually I'm just counting down the minutes until the next beast attack but not in this film.

Mugford is drunk as a lord and mumbling about how little use the guns are going to do against spider monsters (and hey, he's not wrong) while Chandra believes that keeping people occupied and giving them a false sense of security is more productive than freaking them out and having them be useless in a crisis. Speaking of relative competence, Sean tosses a stick of dynamite at a strange noise in the night, and that turns out to just be the farm's windmill (which is now on fire). He sheepishly tells Chandra that it's a false alarm. The talks break down (Chandra is considerably unamused by this "throwing lit dynamite all over the damn place" plan of Sean's). Time passes and the music gets ominous. Sean can apparently hear this, because he starts looking around for the spiders but doesn't see any of them. Screams, shots and the fire trench getting lit show him that he is the worst sentry of ever. One of the monsters makes it to the roof of the farmhouse and then it's CHAINSAW TIME!; as Anton Chekhov said about drama, if you have a chainsaw on the wall in the first act, you have to attack a giant spider with it in the third.

Again, I have to praise the use of stop-motion for the spiders; the scene where Sean fights one on the roof appears to have a few quick insert shots of a puppet, but for the most part it's the sofa-change budget equivalent of the Jason and the Argonauts skeleton fight. I'm extremely well-disposed towards the movie just for trying, but they carry it off remarkably well. The spider knocks the chainsaw out of Pachowski's hands but decides to snack on a lit stick of dynamite that Sean uses as his Plan B; exit one monster. But there's at least four more on the ground closing in, so someone's going to have to think of something. Some not-particularly-well-matted-in flames from the Molotov cocktails corral the beasts towards a certain point (sorta like using the caltrops in City of Villains to herd enemies where you wanted them) and Sean blows a couple more up. But he's got the problem any movie character has when there's finite ammo--thirty bullets are only good news if there aren't thirty-one zombies coming after you.

The survivors manage to take out about a dozen spiders through various methods, and the remaining monsters scuttle off to fight another day. They aren't suicidally dumb, which is pretty good news. The bad news is one of them knows enough to burrow under the floorboards and snag one of the bimbos (it grabs Kelly, the brunette one, who had the nude scene earlier. That's because in movies like this the woman who shows the most skin is the one who gets attacked first--which all of my readers undoubtedly already knew). When everyone regroups outside of the house Trina delivers the news that Kelly has been spider-napped. Trina accuses Mugford of throwing Kelly at the spider to save himself (which doesn't look like it happened from the footage, but maybe it did--and Mugford sounds disingenuous and cowardly when ordering breakfast). Sean declares that the next step is saving Kelly from the spider colony. Brave and noble, but...well, I'm not sure I would be up for it, myself.

Sean, Trina and Chandra set off for the cave and Mugford stays up top to signal the air force if and when they show up ("Can I trust you not to run out on us?" "Where would I run to?"). The trio goes into the cave and Trina winds up with two sticks of dynamite and a lighter in lieu of a gun. While those three are going farther into the cave, Mugford is up topside waving his arms and yelling to attract the attention of an incredibly dire effect of a search plane. He sneaks off into the woods to leave the others to their own devices and, as a direct consequence of his cowardice and general assholery, has a freakout, falls down the sandy pit (with the actor appearing to do his own stunts here, and good on him for going the extra mile) and is immediately SPIDERED, because THAT IS WHAT YOU GET.

Back in the cave, Chandra sees an empty molted skin from one of the spiders and wastes a shell on it (humorously enough, Trina is the one who identifies it because she paid attention during at least some of Mugford's lectures). It's also a lot of fun to watch the actors clump right up together on the tiny set and walk through the same ten or fifteen feet of cave multiple times; you can change the camera setup all you want, but you're not fooling anyone. You only have ten or fifteen feet of cave. It couldn't be any more faithful a recreation of a 1950s creature feature without being filmed in Bronson Canyon.

Deeper into the cave, the trio finds a rock formation full of spider beast eggs; as they watch, a gigantic maggot or grub hatches out of one of them. When it tries to snuggle up to Chandra's boot she understandably freaks out and beats it to death with the butt of her gun; everyone flees the chamber as Sean tosses a stick of dynamite at the egg pit and wipes out the next generation of spider creatures. Immediately after everyone says they're all right, the floor beneath them caves in and they fall dozens or possibly hundreds of feet down a dirt slope. The gigantic cavern they stumble into after they plummet looks like it should have a Godzilla skeleton and two MUTO spores in it; instead, there's a puppet of the spider-monster brood queen and several spiders attending to it. Off in a corner, Kelly and Farmer Cobb are webbed up and waiting for something terrible to happen to them.

Sean and Chandra creep over to free them from the web coccoon (that looks more than a little like Halloween decoration webbing or pillow stuffing). Cobb wakes up just long enough to die from a three-spider-hatchling chest burst (...but didn't the other chamber have eggs and grubs hatching? Oh, hell, I don't know enough about real spider life cycles to say what they're getting wrong in this movie.) Chandra fires a random shot that wakes up the various inert Big Damn Spiders in the cave and prompts them to attack. Trina blows up two of them and Sean finds out that their underbellies are vulnerable to chainsaw attack (covering him in spider goop) and everyone runs out of the chamber without having to climb 200 feet back up the slope they fell down. Sean buys time for the three women to leave by chainsawing an attacking spider in the mouth before running like hell from the trio of spiders that follow after him. He's just barely outside into the cave pit when stock footage of helicopters launch a military attack and a dozen or so soldiers show up to blow the rest of the CG budget and kill the dozen or so spiders that crawled out of the cave.

Colonel Weaver turns out to be a middle-aged white dude (Chandra: "I'm adopted!"); I wonder if the original actor wasn't available or if Brett Piper was always planning to have this happen. Either way, it's neat and at least somewhat inclusive to have multiracial families in the film. Soldiers in hazmat suits that make their arms look tiny and stumpy charge into the cave and the same "exploding spider" effects shot is used about half a dozen times in a row as they make their way down to the queen's chamber and set demolition charges. Things wrap up incredibly fast (with the stock footage of helicopters used rather well in the montage of Stuff Going Boom) and Colonel Weaver says the monsters are all defeated, and if they aren't they'll just shoot and grenade them to death. Everyone still alive walks off to the waiting matted-in helicopter and the obligatory scuttling baby spiders burst out of the ground, unseen, for an actual THE END ? title on the screen.

Much like Grabbers, this is one of those movies made by people who know and love the old creature features; it's not reaching for the stars but it does everything that the filmmakers set out to do. A dash of nudity, some slimy monsters, a couple of jerks to get eaten and a military rescue in the eleventh hour. What's not to dig? And hey, of the three female characters in the film they all make it to the end credits while killing the dudebro stoner. Thanks, Brett Piper!

Unfortunately the DVD I was using for this review had artifacts and display glitches through its entire running time; I just consoled myself by thinking that I borrowed the disc from a friend so I didn't have to pay for it, and that the squares of digital noise were the equivalent of watching an old beat-up TV print of the movie on Svengoolie or something. That's really the way this kind of movie should be experienced if you don't have a cooperative drive-in close by.

This is the first review (of 26) for this year's HubrisWeen blog marathon. Four other reviewers are joining the fun, for a given value of "fun", and by clicking the banner right above this message you can go check out their stuff this year as well. See you at the end of the alphabet.


  1. I'm sorry but "A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell" is automatically a GOOD MOVIE based just on the title. It's the "Snakes on a Plane" Rule.

    Seems like a pretty low body count. I'm amazed that both of the Gratuitous Nudity ladies survived. Piper seriously violated an established scary movie law there.

  2. If you're so sure about that, watch the movie. I will send you a get-well soon card when you're done.

    (Apparently the movie got recut by Troma when they released it under that title, which can't have helped anything. It wasn't any good, but I'm glad I can blame the distributor rather than the director.)