(1990) Directed by Frank Marshall; Written by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick; Based on a story by Don Jakoby and Al Williams; Starring: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Henry Jones, Stuart Pankin and Roy Brocksmith; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“What we’re trying to do in this picture is really give you a funhouse, where you’re scared but you’re having fun, almost like a rollercoaster ride...” – Frank Marshall (from DVD featurette)
A colossal thanks to Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini for hosting the Workplace in Film & TV Bogathon, honoring the many cinematic depictions of the workers and the workplace. Be sure to check out the other entries in this spectacular three-day blogging event. My film du jour focuses on the vaunted profession of family doctor, as portrayed by Jeff Daniels in Arachnophobia – more on his character in a moment.
Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures division stirred up much ballyhoo, touting Arachnophobia as a “thrill-omedy,” which I presume was their code for a broadly acceptable horror film with light moments. It walks the line well between preying on the audience’s innate fears, while understanding that most of us need a release valve to laugh off our terror. I’m reminded of an incident several years ago, on a nature hike with Kid Number One, as I absentmindedly walked through a spider web. The sensation of the sticky threads on my face was enough to unnerve me, but that was nothing compared to the stark realization its occupant was crawling on my head. When I think about it now, it only evokes laughter – there was no harm done (to me at least), but the perception of danger was quite palpable for a few very long moments. Because life is a cruel trickster, I re-experienced the incident on a recent walk with Kid Number Two a couple of weeks ago, as I stumbled through another web, with similar results. Arachnophobia evokes a similar reaction, with the initial jolt followed by a well-earned release.
The film opens in the Venezuelan jungle, a vast and remote tropical oasis, unspoiled for millions of years. Headstrong arachnologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) targets one particular tepui (plateau) region for his studies, feared by the locals (and as we’ll soon discover, with good reason), but a boon for scientists. He discovers a new, aggressive species of spider, which proves to be deadly venomous (as his photographer learns too late).
Jump to the sleepy central Californian town of Canaima (actually shot in Cambria, California) where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) has recently relocated with his family, to escape the rat race of the big city. His plans to take over the reins from Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), an elderly family practitioner, and establish his own practice. Much to the younger doctor’s chagrin, Dr. Metcalf has a change of heart, deciding not to retire. Suddenly, Dr. Jennings and his ex-stockbroker wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) are faced with the prospect of no income. Things go from bad to worse when Jennings’ first and only patient dies under mysterious circumstances. A series of odd deaths follow, and Jennings begins to suspect a spider is the culprit. Suddenly, he’s faced with the prospect of saving his professional reputation, while convincing the authorities that an epidemic is at hand. Daniels does a great job as Jennings, finding just the right tone to make his character believable, with his down-to-earth, deadpan delivery. We feel his terror, rooting from a deep-seated childhood trauma, as he must confront his greatest adversary.
One of the things that makes Arachnophobia so special is that it takes the time to get to know the minor characters, building a history around them. In many other genre movies, the peripheral characters could have been disposable and two-dimensional, but here, each takes on life and purpose. Speaking of professions, Roy Brocksmith is a hoot as the local mortician Irv Kendall, who takes a rather glib attitude to his work. Stuart Pankin is also amusing as the dimwitted, self-important sheriff Lloyd Parsons, as well as Peter Jason as a gung ho high school football coach. One disappointment is the usually reliable John Goodman as ace exterminator Delbert McClintock. Compared to his fellow performers, he plays his character too broad and unsubtle. He’s funny in small doses, but wears out his welcome before long.
A discussion of Arachnophobia wouldn’t be complete without giving due credit to the eight-legged beasties that appear in the film. In order to depict the colonial behavior of the cinematic spiders,* the filmmakers employed two different species: Delena spiders from New Zealand (much milder in temperament than the film would suggest) for the soldiers, and significantly larger bird eating spiders as the “general,” which directs their activities. Of course, when using live spiders was deemed too impractical or unethical (i.e., death scenes), a team of special effects wizards created animatronic arachnids. Of course, none of the featurettes or publicity surrounding the film mention how many real spiders died in the name of cinema.
* Fun, Creepy Fact: Thankfully, there’s nothing yet discovered to quite match the ferocity or lethal capabilities of the creatures in the film, but if you’re thinking this sort of thing is merely the domain of Hollywood nightmare-spinners, colonial spiders are really a thing.
Arachnophobia occupies a sweet spot, appealing to a broad audience with a nice mix of fright and comedy, but doesn’t alienate hardcore horror fans or casual genre filmgoers. It compares favorably to other films, such as Jaws, Tremors (released the same year as Arachnophobia), and Piranha, which remind us good stories and performances go hand in hand with the shocks. It’s effective because it amplifies our basic fears. Most of us have little to be concerned about our arachnid friends – they do much more good than harm, keeping a vast population of pests in check. But most of us probably would prefer if they stay outside, where they belong. As tolerant as I am regarding spiders, everything breaks down when my world collides with theirs. Even if you don’t have arachnophobic tendencies, you’ll likely check inside your shoes, clothing and other potential hiding places after giving this movie a watch. Is that prickling sensation on your skin nothing but an itch, or something else? Arachnophobia is a machine that exploits our innate disdain (at least most of us) for creepy crawlies, and does it very well.