Arachnophobia is defined here as the deep-rooted fear of spiders, those creepy, crawly insects that give most of us a twinge of anxiety, if not pangs of out-and-out terror. Catering to this prevalent dread, Frank Marshall's directorial debut is a predictable formula film that also
panders to yet another basic psychological state, what might be called phobiaphilia, the love of being scared. But as Steven Spielberg's longtime partner and executive producer of some of the most popular movies ever made (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; POLTERGEIST; BACK TO THE FUTURE), Marshall has
learned a few tricks along the way. Conventional though it may be, ARACHNOPHOBIA is almost flawlessly executed. Cute rather than clever, this self-styled "thrill-omedy" breaks no new ground, but it is fun to watch, beautifully produced, and guaranteed to evoke lighthearted screams along with its
share of nervous laughter.
The obligatory prolog (long at 18 minutes) establishes the movie's premise in the remote Venezuelan rain forest. During a scientific expedition to uncover new species of spiders, photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) dies after being bitten by a deadly new breed. (Not the usual sort of
friendly daddy longlegs, this large, furry spider has fierce-looking fangs and is as ugly as sin.) Undetected by the expedition's leader, world famous entomologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands), one of these hideous spiders stows away in Manley's casket, which is bound for the photographer's
hometown, Canaima, California. Enter Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), a yuppie Yalie with a medical degree and a fondness for vintage wine. Battle-scarred from the urban warfare of San Francisco, Ross moves his family (stockbroker wife, two kids, and pet dog) to Canaima--where else?--to take over the
small-town medical practice of the retiring local doctor. However, crotchety old Doc Metcalf (Henry Jones) changes his mind and decides to continue his practice, which includes practically everyone in town. Jennings' only patient is his neighbor, Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver). But after she
throws a garden party to introduce the young doctor to the locals, Jennings is left patientless when Margaret is found dead, the cause of her death unknown. The audience knows better: the obvious has happened; the film's "star" has escaped from Manley's casket in the town mortuary. Grown to
enormous proportions after draining the corpse of blood, the spider has gone in search of its next meal and found Margaret. Jennings, whose reputation is already suffering, is nicknamed "Doctor Death" when a new patient, a member of the high-school football team, dies after a spider crawls
unnoticed into his helmet. Jennings' requests for autopsies are rejected by both Metcalf and the simpleton sheriff (Stuart Pankin) until the older physician himself becomes a victim. Lab tests point to minute amounts of an unidentified poison as the cause, and Jennings contacts Atherton, who sends
his assistant (Brian McNamara) to investigate. After the spider "feeds" on the undertaker and his wife--in a bizarre but funny sequence--Atherton himself shows up and pushes the panic button. Engaging in doubletalk about the ecological breakdown of the spiders' natural habitat, Atherton warns that
unless their nest is found and destroyed, the spiders will multiply rapidly and kill everyone and everything in their path (a surprising prediction, considering that these spiders lack reproductive organs). The hunt for the nest is on! In no time, Atherton spots a prominently displayed photo that
Jennings' wife, Molly (Harley Jane Kozak), has taken of the huge spiderweb in their barn. It becomes immediately obvious that this is where "the General," as the original spider has been dubbed, has set up housekeeping (though it's never made clear how a family of Ivy Leaguers couldn't have made
this connection on their own). Atherton rushes into the barn, looks around admiringly at all the dead animals caught in the huge web (a pretty gory sight), and utters a respectful "My, you have been busy." Unfortunately, his next words, "C'mon. Supper's ready," are his last. He's the main course.
For the film's grand finale, Jennings, who's had a chronic case of arachnophobia since he was two, escapes with his family from the mass infestation of newborn spiders inside his house. On the attack, the creatures crawl though rooms, atop the TV, under doors, and across the floor; they even
corner Jennings in the bathroom. Naturally, he escapes (never for a moment do you doubt it), then heads for the barn. In a battle to the death with "the General," Jennings burns the spider and its nest, using his vintage wine collection for fuel. In the last scene, with San Francisco's skyline in
the background and Tony Bennett singing his signature number on the soundtrack, the Jennings celebrate their move back to civilization, happy to be in control of their lives again. However, their short-lived bliss is interrupted by the increasingly loud rumble of an earthquake. (The Moral? There's
Big John Goodman doesn't appear until the midpoint of the picture and does little to further the plot. In a very small role as the boob of an exterminator who's hired to rid the Jennings' farmhouse of termites, Goodman is on hand solely to provide comic relief. Swaggering, using his spray cans
like six-shooters, and dressed like a one-man posse from the Wild West, he has precious few lines, but is funny even without saying a word. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, especially Daniels, who suitably underplays the city sophisticate transplanted to the sticks. However, little is
demanded from any of the roles.
Considerably more lifelike than any of these caricatures are the spiders. Steven Kutcher, Hollywood's best-known insect specialist, screen-tested dozens of spiders before coming up with a versatile creature from New Zealand, the Delena, which fit the bill perfectly. Wranglers were then hired to
keep an eye on the spiders during the filming--which used as many as 200 of the insects in some scenes.
The first release from Disney's new Hollywood Pictures, ARACHNOPHOBIA did boffo business when it opened. Some critics even likened it to Spielberg's JAWS and Hitchcock's THE BIRDS; however, those comparisons are far too generous. Those films are classics; ARACHNOPHOBIA is merely an also-ran. It
may be a seamless tongue-in-cheek thriller, but it lacks the superbly developed psychological tension of its illustrious predecessors. Director Marshall's film is nothing more than a diversion, and if you personally have no fear of spiders, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Nevertheless, parents might want to think twice before bringing small children to this one. (Violence, gore effects.)
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- Released: 1990
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Arachnophobia is defined here as the deep-rooted fear of spiders, those creepy, crawly insects that give most of us a twinge of anxiety, if not pangs of out-and-out terror. Catering to this prevalent dread, Frank Marshall's directorial debut is a predictab… (more)