Directed by Mike Mendez
Written by Gregory Gieras
Starring Greg Grunberg, Lin Shaye, Ruben Pla, Alexis Kendra, Lombardo Boyar, and Ray Wise
Titles are important. They set audience expectations of tone and content. Other factors play into it of course — trailers, posters, tie-in products — but in the end, it’s just the title listed with a time. So when I learned there was a film named Big Ass Spider! I figured it would deliver a big damn spider, a comical tone, and hopefully enough action to make up for its shortcomings. Spoiler: my guess was right.
aka Prehistoric Valley
Directed by Edward Bernds
Written by Edward Bernds and Donald Zimbalist
Based on the novel Career of a Comet by Jules Verne
Starring Cesare Danova, Sean McClory, Joan Staley, and Danielle De Metz
Jules Verne is perhaps best remembered today for the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The story of Nemo and his advanced submarine has been adapted to screen many times, as have his works Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. So popular were movies of Verne’s adventure stories that it was tempting to produce anything that his name could be attached to. For instance, by using just the barest premise of Of On a Comet (here credited as the subtitle of the translation called Hector Servadac; or The Career of a Comet) the producers of Valley of the Dragons were able to promote a rambling Lost World ripoff as being a Jules Verne movie.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Gene Quintano and James R. Silke based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard
Starring Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Stone, Herbert Lom, John Rhys-Davies, Ken Gampu, and June Buthelezi
Raiders of the Lost Ark made a huge splash when it came out in 1981, immediately creating a wave of adventure movies. The success of Romancing the Stone in 1984 proved that the treasure-hunting genre still had plenty of steam in it, although imitators of both films fell rapidly into the forgotten crevices of empty theaters. It was inevitable that Cannon Films would try to catch the train and hubris that they’d do so with a 2-picture deal for the dusty adventures of Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hunter.
aka Ator l’invincibile
Directed by Joe D’Amato
Written by Joe D’Amato and Michele Soavi
Starring Miles O’Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, and Ritza Brown
The sword and sandal genre once thrived, with heroes like Hercules and Samson knocking down pillars and wrestling lions. Maybe it died off because other cheap fare was more marketable, or perhaps an audience that had rejected tight shorts on men now demanded their heroes wear pants. Whatever the cause, it wasn’t until Arnold Schwarzenegger donned the loincloth for Conan the Barbarian that buff men running around in their underwear muscled their way back into theaters.
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from a novel by Dennis Wheatley
Hammer Films dominated horror in the 1960s, with their stylish Gothic approach and stable of charismatic actors. Their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises were particularly lucrative, and while it would be stretching things to say that they could do no wrong during this period, it’s reasonable to expect a certain high degree of quality. The stakes get raised when considering the creative team behind The Devil Rides Out.
Terence Fisher had directed several of Hammer’s hits, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Richard Matheson had helped turn his own book I Am Legend into the famed movie The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. He’d written the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror. Between them, Fisher and Matheson brought an impressive resume to the table.
Then there’s Dennis Wheatley, an English author whose writing influenced Ian Fleming. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) featured the Duke de Richleau. The following year saw the release of both a movie version and the second in what would be an 11 book series of the Duke’s occult adventures, The Devil Rides Out. Still a best-selling author in the 1960s, it could be assumed that Wheatley’s works would have been familiar to British audiences for this adaptation.
It’s clear that Matheson relied on this familiarity. Characters have relationships that are glossed over, as though unnecessary to explain. The Duke just happens to know everything about the occult, and his knowledge is explained with a terse comment about his studies. It feels like several scenes are missing, and in fact there are — an entire book’s worth! The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s kind of realistic that we don’t get a lot of context. People are busy fighting Satan and don’t have the time to re-establish their relationships. Yet it distances the viewer a bit as well. There’s a tight central group of characters, and we’re on the outside. It’s frankly a little off-putting.
Fortunately, the film stars Christopher Lee in the crucial role, here very slightly renamed as Duc de Richleau. Lee’s authoritative manner makes de Richleau seem more than capable of besting Lucifer at anything from magic to snooker, which somewhat mitigates the absence of back story. On the downside, he frequently leaves to conduct research, and nobody he knows can follow simple instructions. This allows the dastardly Mocata (played by the deliciously fiendish Charles Gray) to do pretty much anything he wants.
What Mocata wants is to add two members to his coven to bring their number up to the requisite 13. He’s accidentally selected Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who de Richleau and his close friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) have sworn to watch over. The other recruit turns out to be the fetching Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), with whom Van Ryn falls madly in love. Aron and Carlisle’s minds are already under Mocata’s control, so there’s nothing for it but that de Richleau and Mocata battle for their souls. It’s all very much like a serial, with the villains and heroes dashing after each other fruitlessly until the climax.
So how does a giant spider figure into this movie? Simon is placed under the protection of de Richleau and the Eatons (a nice couple, related to somebody) inside of a magic circle. If they can prevent Mocata from claiming Simon overnight, he’ll be safe. The first gambit Mocata tries is to send a giant tarantula to prowl the edge of the circle. When that somehow fails to make anyone leave the protection of the circle, young Peggy Eaton enters the room for the spider to menace.
The approach chosen was a mixture of filming a tarantula on a miniature set and matting it in when it needed to be seen with the actors. This is a difficult trick for color film, and the complicating factors of the lighting in the room do not work in the effect’s favor. Nonetheless, it’s largely effective. In most of the sequences, it works well. The worst lighting problems occur when interacting with Peggy, when suddenly the tarantula is too bright. It could have come off as a game attempt if not for the inclusion of footage of the spider “rearing”. While tarantulas will rear up, it’s generally because they feel threatened. This one seems to be merely testing the glass wall in front of it. Much like the ants climbing into the air in Empire of the Ants, it re-engages disbelief with a quickness.
Also quick is Mocata’s escalation of attacks, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say he jumps straight from “dare” to “triple-dog dare” in direct violation of the Queensbury rules. He’s sort of a jerk that way.
It’s a pretty neat movie. I understand why many people consider it to be one of Hammer’s best. Lee and Gray, though sharing only a few scenes, ground the film with the power of their palpably clashing wills. Although the effects are sometimes less than spectacular, the menace they serve to reflect is stronger than in most plots about Satanism. Partly, this is due to Mocata’s mental dominance over all but de Richleau, but really it’s how far Mocata is able and prepared to go for victory. I refer to the aforementioned untoward escalation. This isn’t your garden-variety cultist.
The biggest problem I think the movie has is its ending. Without revealing anything, I’ll just say that it doesn’t make immediate sense. Just as with his script for the excellent The Legend of Hell House (based on his own novel Hell House), Matheson underplays the critical part of the reveal. One or two more sentences from the Duc de Richleau would put it all together, but while the explanation we get is reasonable, it isn’t until ruminating over it much later that I came to accept it as more than a flimsy cheat. Maybe I’m inordinately dense, but while the conclusion makes perfect in a 1930s adventure sort of way, it just doesn’t seem direct enough for the style of story it is.
The film as a whole is enjoyable, and I recommend it particularly to fans of Hammer or of old-fashioned adventure films. Just stay on your toes and repeat to yourself “it all makes sense” until you understand why. Or, you know, understand it the first time. Whatever works.
Directed by Josh Becker
Written by Josh Becker
It’s 1991, and video stores have made Bruce Campbell a low-budget celebrity. He and his friends at Renaissance Pictures seem to have what it takes (the company had five films to its credit and was still in business!). Their latest film “Darkman” had been a legitimate success within the studio system, and maybe it was the breathing room that afforded them which let them turn back to a small budget for their next project. After all, it’s more fun when the big boys aren’t involved.
Josh Becker had directed and co-written the company’s third feature “Stryker’s War” (1985, aka “Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except”) and had worked with Ted Raimi and Bruce Campbell on short films before that. Becker wrote and directed “Lunatics: a Love Story”, Bruce Campbell signed on as an actor and producer (with Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert as executive producers, of course), and Ted “Theodore” Raimi got the starring role.
As the opening credits roll, we’re treated to the sleazy meanderings of a saxophone. As soon as the title appears, the music collapses into a mix of hip-hop and jazz that promises fun, funky times ahead. The composer is none other than Joseph LoDuca, who had started to work with the Raimi crew on Evil Dead and would go on to write memorable themes for their Xena and Hercules shows (along with plenty of other TV and movie scores).
After the credits, we get an establishing shot of L.A. followed by a pan from a lingerie billboard ad to a tenement across the street. A mail carrier enters the building, and residents come out to deliver exposition. (Only one ever appears again, and only for a moment, so there’s really no point to this scene. All of the relevant information we clumsily receive here is given later.) we learn that the guy in 206 is crazy. He screams in the night. He has food delivered. He moved in six months ago and never leaves his apartment.
The walls in 206 are covered in tinfoil, movie shorthand for crazy. The place is unkempt, and boxes and papers are strewn everywhere. Still, it’s spacious, and it’s got a lovely view of the lingerie billboard. Hank Stone (Ted Raimi) is enjoying a more cramped space. He’s underneath his bed, clutching his head and whimpering. It seems that there are spiders in his brain, as we see in a nifty bit of stop-motion animation.
Hank also has Bruce Campbell on his mind, as should we all! In Hank’s case, though, Campbell is a maniacal surgeon who wants to perform unspecified but certainly unseemly operations on him. Tinfoil seems to help keep the mad doctor at bay, because crazy, and we’ll see a lot of Campbell and tinfoil over the 1 hour and 27 minute running time.
Bruce Campbell also plagues the movie’s love interest, in the form of her sleaze-ball boyfriend Ray. Nancy is played by Deborah Foreman, known in my circles for portraying Muffy in the original “April Fool’s Day”. In that, she had a juicy, low-budget role, getting to play the mysterious hostess of a rapidly unravelling island vacation. Here, she is relegated to cringing and looking gooey-eyed as events require, and to Foreman’s credit she plays the part like a trooper.
More on that later. The important thing, plot-wise, is that she feels responsible for everything that goes wrong around her. So these are the promised lunatics: a paranoid schizophrenic (I guess?) and a self-appointed scapegoat. Notice that one is an incurable psychosis and the other is, at best, a deep but treatable neurosis.
After Ray dumps Nancy, stranding her in L.A. with no money and an unpaid hotel bill, she winds up wandering the streets until she runs into a gang that wants to rape her. Managing to hide in a phone booth, Nancy winds up answering the phone. On the other end is Hank, who thinks he’s contacting a prostitute. Thus the lovers are set on their lunatic path.
Let’s talk about the giant spider. It’s why I watched it after all, and it’s more pleasant than other things I have to say. The spider shows up near the climax, when Hank has actually left his apartment in order to find Nancy. Nancy has run away from him, because he knocked her out in a delusional fit and is generally, you know, unstable.
You know what? I’ll get to the spider in a bit, but I have to deal with the elephant in the room, because this movie makes me hate myself. This is a Nice Guy story. No matter what he does, no matter his failings, no matter his prospects, no matter his sanity, Hank will win the girl like a prize for simply not being completely horrific. As a young man, this type of thing appealed to me a great deal. I’d actually get upset at movies where the heroine didn’t fall for the Nice Guy simply because he was present. How dare Andie pass on Duckie simply because she wasn’t attracted to him?
Nice Guy movies enforce this notion that women have no agency; that their love goes to those who simply aren’t horrific. This is different from Chaplin in “City Lights”, who goes to great lengths to cure his love’s blindness but then avoids her because he doesn’t want to burden her with his poverty. It’s different from Moranis in “Little Shop of Horrors”, who gives up everything he believes makes Audrey like him in order to save her. These men misjudge the women, who already love them for who they are. Nice Guys just have to be in position for a woman to land on them.
What he have in Hank is a horror show of a Nice Guy. He’s a jobless shut-in with a serious psychosis, who acts out violently during delusional episodes. On the plus side he writes truly awful poetry. After chasing Nancy out of his apartment, stalking her, and needing to be saved from a garbage truck by her (we’ll get back to that), Hank manages to knock out the lead gang member. For this one act Nancy is his. Nancy, who managed to elude and often defeat all threats until the finale, is a trophy Hank earned by leaving his apartment.
I could dismiss this as simply inept writing (which it is) but for the fact that I know I would have loved it if I’d seen this when it came out in 1991. It’s Ted Raimi being silly! Haha, crazy people! Happy ending — woot! My disappointment in my younger self is so great that I simply can’t remove it from discussion of “Lunatics: A Love Story”. I can’t be objective and leave it at saying that the script is built on clumsy cliches and expectations and that the humor is droll at best and plodding in general. I can’t distance myself enough to just say that the movie treats Nancy poorly. I can’t, because the movie puts my cultural misogyny in my face and expects me to find it funny. It’s repellent to me in a way that mere shoddiness and laziness of craft never achieves.
So, now that I’ve explained why I would never recommend this film to anybody, I’ll move on to the part I mostly liked. Hank is running around looking for Nancy, who’s running away from the rape gang. When he leans up against a wall, an insectile leg reaches down toward him. It’s a big goddamn spider, and it chases Hank down the street in some neat stop motion sequences. In reality, Hank is running away from a garbage truck, and why Nancy shoots at it for him I will never figure out.
I won’t say that this scene made the movie worth it, but between it and the trio of rappers who appear in Hank’s apartment I at least had a few moments of genuine enjoyment. I love stop-motion, and this is better quality than the movie required or deserved. It’s done by David Hettmer, who also worked on “Army of Darkness” with Renaissance. The animation is fun, and while the “spiders in the brain” scene is more memorable (by virtue of being over-the-top) it’s a treat watch the giant spider chase Hank down the street.
I can’t wrap this up without expanding on the rappers in Hank’s apartment. While the animated spiders were cool, the highlight for me was when these guys showed up. Early in the movie, Hank turns on his radio and these guys appear in his living room performing the LoDuca penned “Saran Rap”. This is a delightfully specific song about the spiders crawling in Hank’s mind, and I wish to hell that it was available to purchase. It’s a more threatening delusional episode than a mad surgeon, because it’s basically Hank materializing people to mock and berate him. Accusing yourself is a big part of mental illness, so I was glad to see the movie veer somewhat near the neighboring state of authentic symptomatology, if only for a moment.
Becker went on to a minor career, directing episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Jack of All Trades” as well as the TV movie “Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur”. He co-wrote and directed the Bruce Campbell vehicle “Alien Apocalypse” and directed “Harpies”, starring Stephen “Not Alec” Baldwin–both of which play occasionally on SyFy instead of content. What I’m suggesting is that his work is serviceable but neither outstanding enough for bigger movies nor expedient enough for steady work. It’s hardly surprising, then, that “Lunatics: A Love Story” is a rough without any diamond.