Arachnophobia (1990)

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This week we’re taking a look at a classic creature feature brought to us by Frank Marshall. Jeff Daniels, John Goodman, and Harley Kozak headline the cast with a crew of recognizable supporting actors. There’s a definitive 1990s tinge to this movie with a high level “big city doctor moves to a small country town” type of setup. Does it stand up? Are we still afraid of spiders? Has entomology evolved at all in the last 30 years? All of these answers and more in our spoiler-filled review, below.

Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

Frankly, the trailer linked above does a better job than I possibly could: 8 legs, 2 fangs, and an attitude. 1990’s trailers really did it right. The only thing I would add is “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, but that’s just me. Maybe I should at least try and fill in the gaps a little bit.

The movie opens with an entomological expedition in the rainforests of Venezuela. We join a recently assigned photographer as he initially joins this group of insect hunters. They travel to a remote location that the natives are afraid of (have we ever seen this plot line before?) and begin to stir shit up with the loudest possible smoke machine you can pack on a trip like this. Releasing a bigass cloud of smoke into the trees is a sufficient way to dislodge a pile of insects into collection jars to study later. Among these insects is a new breed of spider, never seen before by humans (except maybe some now deceased natives). The king-spider, seemingly annoyed by the fact that many of his kind were captured, kills the photographer and hitches a ride in his coffin back to America. It’s basically Fievel Goes West.

Cut to Canaima, California, a small town in the country where Dr. Ross Jennings (Daniels) is moving to start a new medical practice and to get away from the big city. Timed near-perfectly with his arrival to the city is the arrival of the photographer’s coffin, which still contains this vindictive tarantula. As the spider escapes the mortuary it finds its way to the the Jennings’ estate and settles down with a nice country spider. It’s basically Sweet Home Alabama.

The spiders bang and pop out a horde of progeny, which inherited their dad’s desire for murder. As the local townsfolk are picked off one by one they begin to blame the uptick in deaths on the newly arrived doctor. Before long, however, they finally figure it out and determine that the spiders are the real culprits here. Dr. Jennings and the local exterminator, Delbert McClintock (Goodman), team up to get to the bottom of the infestation. It’s basically Starsky and Hutch.

 
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Long story short, wouldn’t ya know it, the spider actually set up its home base in the basement of Dr. Jennings’ home. Right when the protagonists are finding this out wave 2 of spider progeny hatch and overwhelm the Jennings family as they try to escape. The family narrowly escapes danger, but Ross falls through the floor into his dark and damp basement, wherein he engages in fisticuffs with an animatronic bird-eating tarantula. The fight culminates in Ross setting the spider on fire, then using a nail gun to launch it into the still-spider-filled eggsac, killing both generations of spider simultaneously. It’s no wonder this guy has a phobia of arachnids.


What the Movie Does Right

When you take a step back and look at the landscape of all creature based horror, there is a notably low-volume category: spiders. You’d think that a fear that is so commonly held would have a wider representation in horror, but you could also probably count the total number of legitimate spider-focused horror titles on one hand. Sure, there are the occasional spider-based jump scares in other shows (like that one episode of Black Mirror), but they seldom last outside of the individual scene. I mean, what other spider movies are there out there? Eight Legged Freaks… Some SyFy channel originals… is that it? I find that to be fascinating. Perhaps it is because this is the standalone definitive Spider movie. If you do it right the first time, there really isn’t much impetus to make more. Then again, Jaws is still certainly the best shark movie and there are dozens of those.

 
 The Jaws of spiders.

The Jaws of spiders.

 

Speaking of spiders being a pretty common fear, this film really plays up the common day-to-day places that spiders can be hiding from us. At one point there is a montage of people checking under towels, and coffee mugs, and behind drapes. One of the victims dies from a spider biting her hand as she reaches into a lampshade. Another dies from a spider hiding in his football helmet. I actually get quite a bit of a Jaws vibe out of this movie in the sense that it’s actively trying to make everyday circumstances scary. In the same way Jaws made people afraid of going in water (even in swimming pools), Arachnophobia seems to be making people afraid of picking up pieces of fabric around their house.

 
 Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope

Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope nope

 

Lastly, the production level of the film, and its associated cast present a very low barrier to entry. Even for people who aren’t big fans of horror, it’s hard to resist a proposition to watch a Jeff Daniels and John Goodman joint. The movie is filled with comedy coming from almost every character, and it’s probably an hour or so before the intensity really steps up. It’s a fun ride regardless of what mindset you approach it from.


What the Movie Does Wrong

I’ve seen this movie quite a few times now, and I was still surprised at the length of the prologue. Admittedly, it’d been a few years since my last viewing, but I had completely forgotten about the 20 minute long sequence to start the film. It does set up the origin story of the spider, but it’s also long, boring, and unnecessary. How much setup do you really need to get a bigass poisonous spider to terrorize a town?

The effects are prime 90s level goofy. It’s not all bad, the animatronic spider actually looks decent, but outside of that and the actual real spiders they used there are some really really really bad looking shots. More than once throughout the film they zoom in hyperclose on the spider’s “face” as it watches things happen from afar. I get that they’re trying to ascribe some type of vindictive intelligence to the creature, but it also made me chuckle every time I saw it. There are also a lot of implied motion shots that are supposed to suggest the spider moving through things like blankets and vines, but wind up just implying that Joey the intern had to shake a prop in a certain way that day on set. They also used a lot of real spiders on set. Yes, they look good. No, I don’t want to think about how awful it would’ve been to go home from set every day with the small chance that you had numerous spiders crawling all over you. Unless they had a bio-quarantine level airlock this is frankly unacceptable.

 
 The spider is playing 4D chess.

The spider is playing 4D chess.

 

This is really more of a nitpick than anything else, but also I am highly dubious of the entomology teams methods of extracting butterflies from the wild. Those bugs would definitely be dead after falling unconscious hundreds of feet from the rain forest canopy. These fuckers are basically committing lepidopteran genocide, and somehow doing it on a grant from a university.  I'm glad the main dude got his comeuppance because he was bad at his job and he freaking deserved it.

Finally, the resolution of this story is treated mostly with a happy ending type aloofness. Everyone lives happily ever after so forth and so on. You know what they don’t address? The thousands of incredibly venomous and aggressive spiders that are now wandering the rural California hills. Sure, they aren’t able to reproduce, but most spiders live a few years and some can even make it into their 20s. They also mention that these spiders basically kill all wildlife as well. Isn’t this going to be a gigantic ecological disaster? Why are we celebrating the end times?


Ratings (1-10)

Story: 6 - This story is actually pretty goofy. The spider is notably not supernatural, but still has human level intelligence and spite. It can somehow cross-breed with a very distant relative that probably isn’t even in the same genus. Couple that with the aforementioned case of a judgement day level ecological disaster that is just fully ignored by the characters and you get something that is hard to take seriously. That being said, it is far and away the best spider-horror out there, and at least part of that is how they weave spiders into the plot.

World-Building / Immersion: 7 - Maybe you aren’t legitimately arachnophobic, but if you try and tell me that you're not the remotest bit bothered by spiders then I’ll tell you to do some more self examination. This movie is extremely good at making you feel like something is crawling along the back of your neck. It’s also great at making you worried about checking under the covers of your bed.  The fact that you’re also watching Goodman and Daniels on screen doesn’t hurt either.

Scare-Factor: 6.5 - The vast majority of this score is derived from just the simple fact that spiders are unsettling. Normally I would knock the film a bit for this because it requires a substantial amount of previous knowledge be carried into the viewing experience, but they actually do some interesting work here. They A.) make the spiders very aggressive and jumpy and B.) suggest myriad everyday locations that they fuckers can hide. That’s enough to bump it up to above average.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 5.5 - The good: they used real spiders and the animatronics looked decent. The bad: basically all of the other effects. Luckily for them, it’s a largely light-on-effects movie so I’m willing to just call it average.

Overall: 7 - Spiders are scary. The cast is charming. It’s a unique classic. Might be a bit overlong, but still pretty tight outside of the prologue. Go watch this one if you haven’t already.