Don’t Kill It (2017)

The first ten minutes of Don’t Kill It promise a wonderfully executed modern B-picture: a return to form from former action star Dolph Lundgren and a pointedly satirical takedown of modern Southern Conservativism by way of gory supernatural violence. Unfortunately, that film never arrives. Director Mike Mendez, who was also responsible for the moderately entertaining but gloriously titled Big Ass Spider!, seems to be far too comfortable with settling into an easy groove of direct-to-VOD schlock.  Don’t Kill It distinguishes itself from made-for-SyFy dreck only through the R-rating freedom of its gore, tits, and cusses. Mendez directs Lundgren as a world-weary demon hunter who has to save a small Mississippi town from a demon that hops from body to body as its human hosts are destroyed (hence the title). Along the way, he stumbles into what’s very nearly a brilliant social satire on a Get Out-level of gleeful transgression, seemingly entirely on accident. That’s why it’s a huge letdown, then, that any and all satirical elements fade into distant memories and the movie plays like It Follows by way of Walker Texas Ranger (yet not nearly as fun as that combination sounds).

Don’t Kill It opens with its best ideas on its sleeve. A camo-wearing white man hunts deer in the Mississippi woods where he’s possessed by a mysterious demonic force. With pitch black eyes and a hellish scream he returns from his hunting trip to murder his entire family with a shotgun. When he’s eventually taken down the demon that possesses him jumps to the body of another white man, who in turn kills a black family that lives nearby. Mendez establishes a modern nightmare in this way, one where Southern Conservative White Men are literal demons who must be stopped at all costs. The man tasked with stopping them, the hilariously named Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) is introduced pounding liquor in a dive bar where a nearby bro won’t take “No.” for an answer from a young woman. Woodley kicks the jerk’s ass, teaches him the meaning of the word “consent,” and then follows the girl home himself for a sexual rendezvous. She rides him like a mechanical bull in a Refn-like, neon-lit bedroom until he hallucinates that their encounter was a demonic, evil exchange and the whole ordeal devolves into a nightmare. It’s quite an opening.

The movie immediately tanks from there. A grotesquely macho punchline about sex work cheapens the “consent” exchange from the previous sequence. Woodley then gets wrapped up in convincing an FBI investigator that demons have been behind the recent string of small town murders and, because she’s a woman in a for-the-boys action horror, eventually seduces her with his old man masculinity (between commands to shut up and wait in the car). Similarly, the film itself gets wrapped up in its own mythology and largely forgets what initially made it interesting. The rules of the demon’s body-hopping antics as well as unnecessary details about angels & alternate dimensions dilute the initial impact of the film’s political satire. The idea of scary white men snapping and going on killing sprees is somewhat echoed in later sequences, like when a Tea Party-type town hall meeting devolves into a chaotic bloodbath or when a man is impaled on taxidermy deer antlers. The movie just never calcifies or weaponizes that mode of satire in any significant way. It seems much more concerned with making Dolph Lundgren: Demon Hunter appear to be a late-in-life badass. I know the actor has his dedicated fans, but his persona is never big enough here to justify that loss of interest in the initial conceit. It’s a letdown.

If you’re only looking to Don’t Kill It for a light mood and moments of over the top violence, it delivers in a lot of ways VOD cheapies tend not to. Bodies are slashed, shot, exploded, and boiled as the It Follows-style demon hops from host to host. The problem is that the stretches between those bursts of violence are painfully dull when they really don’t have to be. Don’t Kill It sets itself up with a brilliant central metaphor and sense of purpose in its first few scenes, only to immediately drop them to make room for more Dolph Lundgren hero worship and unnecessary world-building. It’s an okay, goofy-enough film that feels like it was one or two rewrites away from being something truly great.

-Brandon Ledet

Big Ass Spider! (2014)

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three star

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I was tabling at last week’s NOCAZ Fest when two brothers (I’m guessing between the ages of 10 & 14?) named Beau & Joey let me with a film recommendation I promised I’d look into ASAP. I forget exactly how we got on the subject, but it probably had to do with our Marabunta Cinema zine, which is a collection of reviews of movies about killer ants. Beau, the younger of the pair, enthusiastically described the gruesome scenes of a Z-grade creature feature in which a gigantic spider melted the faces off patients in a hospital. When it came to telling me the title of the film, however, he sheepishly deferred to his older, quieter brother, due to a mild expletive in its title. Joey’s response? “Big Ass Spider!“.

Big Ass Spider! is perfectly suited for Beau & Joey’s demographic. It’s got the intentionally campy, Z-movie feel of a Syfy Channel Original but, as the title suggests, its tongue-in-cheek violence is slightly racier than what you’d typically find in the Sharknado format. The titular big ass spider melts faces, stabs chest cavities, and devours victims after grabbing them with its web like Mortal Kombat‘s Scorpion. All of this mayhem is promised as soon as the opening prologue, where the spider is going full King Kong at the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, soundtracked by a down-tempo cover of “Where Is My Mind?” (in a little bit of borrowed Fight Club cool). Schlock fans are unlikely too find too much new or surprising here, except maybe in the detail that the spider grows exponentially in size by the hour, but the film is intentionally goofy enough to work & I can attest to at least two testimonies of it serving as a decent introduction to the creature feature as a genre.

By the way, speaking of the Syfy Channel, director Mike Mendez’ project immediately following Big Ass Spider! was the previously-covered Lavalantula, a Syfy movie about spiders that spew hot volcano lava at Steve “The Gutte” Guttenberg. Big Ass Spider! may have landed Mendez the job for Lavalantula, but distinctly feels more like a personal pet project for the director. Because he couldn’t afford a casting director, for instance, Mendez supposedly cast the entire film using his Facebook friends list. That means that Mendez is Facebook friends with Lin Shaye (best known for her work in Detroit Rock City & the Insidious franchise), Ray Wise (best known to me from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and Lloyd Kaufman (best known for blessing/cursing the world with Troma Video). Sounds like a cool dude to me. Mendez also stuck to his guns when distributors wanted to rename the film Dino Spider or Mega Spider, claiming that “Big Ass Spider! is the right title for the movie. I felt it in my heart and soul.” I can’t argue with him there. A lot of Big Ass Spider!’s charm is in knowing the whole time that there is a real-life movie called Big Ass Spider! and that you’re watching it.

Despite a couple missteps like an uncomfortable Hispanic stereotype sidekick, a stale “Hide your kids, hide your wife” reference, and some Da Hip Hop Witch-style street interview ramblings, Big Ass Spider! gets by enough on its inherent charm to stand out as an enjoyable, occasionally gruesome diversion. In short, if it’s good enough for Beau & Joey, it’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet