Synopsis: A South American killer spider hitches a lift to the US in a coffin and starts to breed and kill in a small idyllic town.
Stars: Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman
Director: Frank Marshall
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Two of my favorite old school horror films were released in 1990. January brought us Tremors which was a swell take on the campy nature run amok films that were ever so popular in the 1950’s when nuclear testing was all the rage. Then in July came Arachnophobia which was just as tongue in cheek but preyed even more on the deep seeded fear that many people have for creatures of the eight legged variety. Bolstered by a crack team of production personnel, snappy dialogue, and a nice collection of fun performances, Arachnophobia became a modest hit for fledgling studio Hollywood Pictures (a Disney offshoot which would eventually flame out before the decade was over).
For years I had owned a copy of Arachnophobia on DVD and was always struggling to get through it because the picture quality was so bad. When a new BluRay edition of it was announced I ditched my old DVD like a hot potato with a daddy-long-legs attached to it. My recent viewing of the 22 (!) year old film brought me back to the night I first saw it with my parents at the Riverview Theater. I vividly remember the audience going crazy for it, equally squealing in terror at the onslaught of arachnids and laughing at some of the funnier moments.
Why this film works can be attributed to several different players. The first is executive producer Steven Spielberg who helped get this off the ground. While it may have been a bit too starkly commercial a project for Spielberg to direct himself at that time, he was wise in placing the power with his collaborators and long-time producers, husband-wife duo Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Marshall also directed the economical film (he also helmed the striking Alive and the disappointing Congo) and it’s clear to see that Marshall learned a lot from his time with Spielberg.
Cinematographer Mikael Salomon shoots the Norman Rockwell-esque town that our story centers on with a loving touch and achieves a nice balance between the South American set opening and serene small-town life the film then jumps to. I also greatly enjoyed the score by Trevor Jones which harkens back to the days of the $.10 movies that our parents saw and loved too.
Even with all of these strong technical elements in place, the film couldn’t have worked without some nifty human and insect performances. Daniels is a great choice as the semi-stuffy would-be-hero town doctor that (of course!) has a terrifying fear of spiders and gradually realizes he’s going to have to face his fears if he’s going to make it to the final reel. Kozak (so memorable in Parenthood) is the understanding wife who is always willing to take a rolled up newspaper to a rogue spider. Sands is our spider expert that shows up only when the movie needs him too…as does Goodman in a not terribly difficult comedic role that is introduced to lighten the mood a bit.
And what of our friends that spin silken webs all over town? They are brought to life through a variety of methods…mostly animatronics and real life specimens where used. This was the day before the CGI craze kicked into high gear so the filmmakers here had to be practical with the spiders. I can’t imagine the movie working at all had it been made today with a heavy reliance on special effects. The creepy crawly creatures are utilized perfectly and judiciously enough to not get the audience too comfortable with them. If you look closely on the BluRay, you can even see the tiny wires that some live spiders were attached to, ensuring they didn’t hop out of the shot!
Time has been kind to Arachnophobia and that’s something that can’t be said for all early 90’s movies made before the boom of special effects technology. It remains an enjoyable romp with its fair share of good-natured shrieks and all around entertaining nature. If you aren’t too averse to spiders and the webs they weave (and no…The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t count) then give this neat popcorn film a spin.