Amblin tread risky territory in Frank Marshall’s Spielberg backed ‘thrill-omedy’—and no, that’s not a typo
In 1990, Disney’s brand new offshoot Hollywood Pictures, Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and director Frank Marshall took one hell of a risk with Arachnophobia. It was a horror that, instead of dabbling with the scary but distant notions of boogiemen, monsters, aliens or even the very real threat of say, a serial killer, concentrated on something relatively mundane but arguably even more frightening and agonisingly unbearable to certain viewers, who would be as likely to pay money to watch a film on this subject as they would allow said subject matter to crawl over their face.
I’m talking about spiders.
Arachnophobia is the only film I have regularly watched where some scenes have caused me to peek through my fingers, or close my eyes altogether. That’s never happened with The Shining, or The Exorcist… not even the original Suspiria (1977), the greatest horror film ever made. Nope, the only film that would have got me hiding behind the sofa if it hadn’t already been pushed against the wall is PG-rated (PG-13 in the US), and regularly gets screened in an early evening slot.
One of the most common of all fears, arachnophobia is an extremely touchy subject for those who suffer from it. Phobias are, by definition, irrational fears, and in the case of this particular one, I know all too well how bad it can affect you. I don’t like spiders. I don’t like the way they look. I hate the shape of their bodies. I don’t like the way they move. I’m not sure what started this fear. I’m not like the character of Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), who is able to pinpoint the precise moment his phobia developed, when as a toddler, a spider crawled over his naked, terrified body and he was helpless to stop it.
The scary thing about spiders is that they’re potentially everywhere. They’re hiding in the corners, they’re above you, they’re below you. If you move something, they’re suddenly there, behind it. If you believe the horror stories, three or four of them crawl up your nose whilst you sleep every year. Other times, they stay still in the middle of the room, possibly eyeing you up, and then when you run out to get a glass beaker and a sheet of card, the lil’ f****r’s disappeared by the time you get back. Please note that I don’t kill spiders. I know my fear is irrational and that spiders are harmless and killing them is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’ve been hurt more times in my life by cats (and I adore cats) than any spider. Nevertheless, they bring out in me a primal dread. Cobwebs freak me out, even ones without spiders on them, because I know what they represent.
Then there’s the case of spiders in film. This is where my exposure to arachnids moves well beyond the harmless category of house spiders, money spiders and daddy long-legs and into the bigger world of larger, scarier arachnids, both real—tarantulas, black widows, bird-eating spiders (hell NO)—and imaginary (Shelob, the white one from Krull, the crap one from King Solomon’s Mines, even the robot ones from Runaway). These are even worse, because they are often filmed by those concerned with a deliberate intent to scare. This is where you see spiders in close-up, and you can see how many eyes they have. This is where I think my fear of spiders of all kinds emerged. Even cartoon spiders scare me, like the one in The Simpsons when they parodied the ending of The Fly, that almost ate the half-Bart/half-fly hybrid but ended up getting a slap in the chops instead.
So, you might ask, if I don’t like spiders, then why the hell do I keep watching this film?
1) I don’t want a movie to have beaten me in the fear stakes, especially a PG-rated one! Also, I had already conquered my fear of The Lost Boys, although admittedly that was about the not-very-grounded subject of vampires.
2) I’m a horror fan! On one base, instinctual level, I like to be scared!
3) Arachnophobia is tremendous.
Yep, it really is. Marshall was a regular Spielberg collaborator and this was his debut, and a lot was riding on it. With no false modesty, it proclaimed itself to be the thrill sensation of the new decade—I remember a poster stating if the ’60s had The Birds, the ’70s had Jaws and the ’80s had Alien (technically, that film was the ’70s, but whatever), then the ’90s would be the decade of Arachnophobia. It was also the film that attempted to introduce the term ‘thrill-omedy’ to the cinematic lexicon, but thankfully it never took off because it’s the clumsiest genre mash-up ever worded. However, the description was incredibly apt, because this film is indeed thrilling and funny.
Plenty of chuckles come from the easy-going humour of the script, but most are likely to be of the nervous, squirm-inducing kind, thanks to the agonising array of close calls the characters unwittingly have, like when there’s a deadly spider just inches away from them, be it under the toilet, under a paper cup or on a shower head. However, it’s not all sighs of relief and relieved giggles over near-misses. These spiders mean business when they want to, happily killing whenever someone gets in their way, or, at other times, when they’re just being jerks. The tagline for this was ‘Eight legs, two fangs, and an attitude’, after all. Not that these spiders have much in the way of personality—their black eyes have the same terrifying, dead quality as described in Jaws regarding sharks and their ‘doll’s eyes’. Still, their mere presence, beautiful to some, horrific to others, is more than enough. As much as Arachnophobia probably contributed to an increase in panicked stomping in the direction of innocent real-life spiders, it also has a fascinated respect towards them, even if the character who admires them more than anyone gets bitten in the throat and killed.
The first fifteen or so minutes are spectacular and a fair indicator of how it’s going to treat its audience, particularly the arachnophobic kind. We arrive in Venezuela, where feverish photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) documents the field research of spider expert Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) in the jungle. They take a few snaps, study a few specimens, Jerry freaks out, he accidentally kills a creepy-crawly, and all the while they’re being observed by an enormous, venomous spider (the first of many shots that I carefully anticipate by covering my eyes), who hitches a ride in Jerry’s luggage, killing him with one nasty bite soon after. Thinking he’s died of the fever, Atherton sends his body back to the peaceful Californian town of Canaima (not a real place, but there is a Canaima National Park in….Venezuela), his coffin providing very handy transport for the spider, who arrives at his new home roughly around the same time as Dr. Ross Jennings and his family.
Ross is a self-professed arachnophobe who was hoping to start a new job as town doctor, only to find out that the cranky git of a current GP has decided to postpone retirement and stay in charge. Meanwhile, the new spider in town (the ‘General’) mates with a regular house variety in Ross’ cobweb-friendly barn and soon enough there’s an infestation of extremely venomous, eight-legged killers on the loose, and no one is safe: not the friendly widow, not the star football player, not the aforementioned cranky doc… and Ross has the unfortunate luck of having met and diagnosed many of the victims shortly beforehand, resulting in him being nicknamed ‘Dr. Death’ by the locals. Even when Dr. Atherton and professional exterminator Delbert (John Goodman) arrive on the scene, ultimately it’s all down to Ross to face the menace, two-eye to eight-eye, before Canaima, and the next town, and the town after that, become, in Atherton’s succinct warning, ‘dead’.
Arachnophobia is a masterclass in carefully engineered, family-friendly suspense. Marshall milks the low angles, high angles, POV shots and visual tricks (the coat hook-as-spider bit is so well executed) for all they’re worth. It carefully builds the tension—a little tease here, a little shock there, a small spider over here, a bloody huge one just over there, and the body count continues to escalate with icky, squirmy, but never gruesome results, beautifully backed by Trevor Jones’ spooky score. Some of the imagery is inspired, be it the spider that suddenly bites a hand turning off a lamp, the drained corpse of Jerry in his coffin and the horrifying sight of a spider crawling out of a corpse’s nose following its accidental consumption amongst a handful of popcorn. All the while, us spider-fearing viewers are dreading the worst; we know the scares are going to get more and more frightening and the ending’s going to be the most frightening of the lot.
Then it comes. A climax that is pretty much a worst nightmare squared. Spiders crawling on the television, spiders crawling out of the sink and the bath, coming in underneath locked doors, blocking all available exits…. and then there’s the basement that Ross falls into, which turns out be the location of the spider’s nest. It’s a gripping, horrific sequence, but it turns out to be also pretty cathartic for both Ross and the audience—saying that, this specific kind of exposure therapy (killing spiders) is probably not approved by professionals. It sounds crazy to recommend this film to arachnophobes, but as long as you don’t have a literally paralysing fear of them, you’ll probably get the most fun out of it. Fun? Yep, this film is a total scream if you can handle it. I can only imagine what a cinema full of terrified viewers must have been like at the time—shrieks, agonised exclamations, nervous laughs and by the ending, out-and-out adrenaline-fuelled yelling at the screen, likely mimicking Jennings’ cries of ‘WHERE ARE YOU!??!’
Still, it’s not just people who are scared of spiders who are going to get an extreme reaction from this film. It works the other way around too. A good friend of mine in my youth loved spiders so much that she actually had one as a pet. A PET. She adored Arachnophobia. Maybe she was happy that such a big film was making stars out of her little friends. Not that all spider lovers approved of the movie though. Like the negative backlash that emerged from Jaws, some people thought it was giving spiders a bad name. I can totally understand this, but at least the filmmakers ensured that no spiders were harmed in the making of it. That’s a good step forward from stuff like Kingdom of the Spiders, where you could blatantly see spiders being run over by cars. Of course, not every spider here is real; there are some neat animatronic versions used for the big ones. Okay, they’re not 100% convincing in the close-ups, but what do I care? They scare the hell out of me! Apparently, there’s an obvious rod pushing the General up Ross’ body at the climax, but I’ve never looked at the screen long enough to spot the goof.
Marshall learned a few tricks in suspense and family-friendly terror from Spielberg, and though his approach is more modest and less in-your-face, I think this works in the film’s favour. Spiders are a very real thing, and if there was an abundance of directorial flash and spectacle it may have nulled the simple impact of these creatures. Also, unlike Spielberg, there’s absolutely no sentiment or indulgences in the script, it moves fast and delivers the goods in a tight 110 minutes. Yet plenty of the master’s influence can be found. In Jeff Daniels, an always-reliable, versatile and excellent actor who is often the supporting foil and not the lead, we get a classically Spielbergian hero. Just like Jaws and the characters of Hooper, Quint and Brody, the film’s designated brain (Atherton) and brawn (Delbert) fail to vanquish the enemy, whereas the sensible middle-ground character with the relevant fear of the enemy (although Brody’s phobia was less to do with actual sharks, more the sea itself) proves to have the right stuff in the end.
Daniels is great here. He perfectly conveys what it’s like to be an arachnophobe. The part when he is pressured to check out the ‘beauty’ of the cobweb in the barn is a fantastic moment. The rest of the performances are fun. Sands is rather stilted (some would say I’m being generous there), but I quite liked him here. He lends an old-fashioned, B-movie quality to his role. Goodman gets to have the most fun, with his ‘Bug-B-Gone’ branded kit, spider-killing spray and deluded abilities. He adds plenty of humour, but never feels like he doesn’t belong in the film. When things get serious, he ends up being just as scared as everyone else.
You really don’t get horror films like Arachnophobia these days. You get horrors for kids, horrors for teens and horrors for adults, but rarely one that’s properly aimed at everyone, that’s rated a PG. Saying that, whilst the film was a box office hit, it was only a moderate one. Maybe the spider element automatically ruled out a sizeable and terrified chunk of its potential audience. For them, some fears are just too real to face head-on, especially on a big screen. If you can handle it though, it’s a hell of a ride. It showed that a horror can be done without lashings of gore or violence, and it didn’t need sex, drugs and swearing either. A good fright is a good fright, and Arachnophobia‘s got loads; enough for the whole family.
Just keep an eye on your popcorn.