Thank you “Sharknado”! I may have, in the past, been a little dismissive of the effect of the Ian Ziering classic on the output of the SyFy Channel, leading to empty, jokey monster movies (“Bermuda Tentacles”, “Lake Placid Vs. Anaconda”), but it turns out all I was waiting for was a strong idea, a half-decent cast and a director who gave a damn (Mike Mendez, whose debut was the superb “Killers” back in 1996). We perhaps expect a little more from SyFy now, and while their average is still terribly low, every now and again they hit one out of the park; “Lavalantula” is such a home run.
A further tip of the cap to whoever had the casting idea. Steve Guttenberg, since his 80s heyday, has managed to never embarrass himself a la Hasselhoff, has worked regularly while doing a lot of theatre work, and appeared as himself in a great episode of “Party Down”. He seems like a guy who knows and understands his place in the world, and is happy with it. Saying that, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him in something like this, but when the cast becomes packed with former “Police Academy” stars, that’s when I become interested. Large roles for Michael Winslow (the sound effect guy) and Marion Ramsey (the timid one who would shout once or twice a movie); and a small one for Leslie Easterbrook (sorry I can’t think of a better character description, but the blonde with the big boobs). What a great idea! I don’t think there are tons of the original cast both alive, recognisable and affordable (Bobcat Goldthwait doesn’t seem to act any more, although they ought to get the guy who replaced Guttenberg in parts 5 and 6 to be the bad guy for the sequel).
The plot? Does anyone need more than the title? There’s a seismic event of some sort, the hills and mountains surrounding Los Angeles suddenly start erupting, but not with lava! Okay, there’s a bit of lava. But lava-spewing giant spiders! The Gutte is Colton West, a washed up movie star, who was made famous in the 90s by playing superhero “The Red Rocket”. He’s now working on lower-budget action movies, and on his way from the set, he’s late to meet his son one day, stuck in traffic, and the lavalantulas start popping up everywhere. They appear to be upset with our heroes, to the extent of chasing them quite a long way when there’s an entire city of easier targets, but let us not dwell on such matters! But let us dwell briefly on the Gutte’s wife, Olivia (Nia Peeples). She kicks ass, gives us the millionth on-screen rendition of the line “I’m not leaving without my family”, and it’s refreshing to see an age-appropriate wife for pretty much any leading man. Bravo, Lavalantula!
It would be nice if the lavalantulas had a bit more “weight” to them, as they seem to float on top of the scene rather than being part of it. But then we’re talking about giant lava-spewing spiders, who were apparently named by the Mayans (amazing), so I oughtn’t be too picky. We can’t fault the shots of normal busy streets in the background either, the bane of so many cheap movies, as they make a point of saying lots of LA is completely ignorant of the attacks. So, Guttenberg hijacks a tour bus, then saves everyone on it before running into his old stuntman friend, who’s now “Pirate Jack”, one of the multitude of celebrity impersonators on Hollywood Boulevard.
As well as being a gentle mockery of the Gutte’s career (his home is full of posters for his movies, including stuff with lurid titles like “Swamp Justice”), it’s got a lot of genuinely funny bits in it – kudos to Mendez, also credited as co-writer, Neil Elman (who also wrote “Mongolian Death Worm”) and Ashley O’Neil (also credited as story editor on the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave”, which Elman produced). Not a team you’d expect to make SyFy’s funniest movie, but there you go. The news reports about how has-been Colton West is saving lives right left and centre are well done, the tour bus bit is funny as hell, and they find the right mix of proper monster movie and knockabout comedy. And there’s a brilliantly done cameo from another star of a bizarrely popular SyFy movie series to watch out for.
It’s not all perfect, though. The Police Academy guest stars appear to have forgotten how to act in the intervening years, plus Michael Winslow (sound effect guy) appears completely unable to take anything seriously, to the extent he’s doing jokey noises seconds after witnessing the death of his friends. And I’ve not mentioned it much (for good reason), but the subplot with the son and his friends is complete filler – I know it’s a cliché, but if there’s an attractive girl the teenage sub-hero is flirting with, she really ought to survive, to show how well the sub-hero can handle the crisis too. But no! There’s a perhaps unfortunate reference to the “Blue Oyster” bar in Police Academy too, but more on that when I actually review it.
What it, surprisingly, manages to be, is a love letter to Hollywood. It’s filmed in LA, for one thing (pretty much unheard of for low-budget movies these days) and the crew of the movie band together to save the entire city at the end. Or do they? Spoilers! But the joy of getting to make movies for a living comes through every moment. More specifically, the joy of getting paid to make a movie about lava-spewing spiders rising up from the ground and attacking Los Angeles.
I think this is better than “Sharknado”, and on a level with “Sharknado 2” (I’m not bothering with part 3 due to all the stupid right-wingers making cameos). I look forward to “2 Lava 2 Lantula” with great anticipation, and am ready for cameos from the cast of “Short Circuit” and “Three Men And A Baby”.
Rating: thumbs up