Release Date: July 18th, 1990 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Frank Marshall Actors: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Cori Wellins
asily the greatest killer spider film ever made, “Arachnophobia” keeps the terror and visuals in perspective by dousing them with plenty of humor and a sensible style. While the spiders are occasionally large, this isn’t a monster movie or a mutant creature extravaganza – instead, it’s grounded in a slightly disproportionate reality that makes all the events believable and therefore more frightening. Great acting, rollercoaster thrills, and a solid story give this classic comic adventure an undeniable lasting power.
Photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) travels to an isolated sinkhole in the Amazon rainforest to aid in Dr. Atherton’s (Julian Sands) research expedition for new small game discoveries. Upon his return to the camp, the unfortunate cameraman is bitten by a lethally poisonous spider, which hitches a ride back to the United States in his casket. The giant strain of arachnid ends up in the rural town of Canaima, California, where it promptly seeks out a garden-variety mate.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) moves to Canaima with his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) and their two children. He intends to take over for retiring doctor Metcalf’s (Henry Jones) business, but the stubborn man spontaneously changes his mind, leaving the new physician without clients. Shortly after Jennings does acquire his very first patient, Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), she succumbs to a sudden heart attack, causing his neighbors to suspect medical malpractice. As the body count begins to mysteriously grow, Ross discovers an alarming string of spider bites that trace back to his barn, where the Venezuelan gargantuan spider has successfully bred, unleashing an army of incredibly aggressive and equally deadly drones to chew on the unsuspecting townsfolk.
Spiders are a perfect choice for a horror film, since arachnophobia is an extremely common fear. But director Frank Marshall didn’t want to simply induce nonstop screams; for this project, he envisioned a perfect blend of laughter and suspense to create a frightener with a sense of humor, dubbed a “thrillomedy.” The suspense is indeed powerful, from the bloodcurdling (mostly real) creepy-crawlies invading living spaces to the action-packed cat-and-mouse showdown against the “General” monstrosity. Daniels plays it straight but can’t escape an air of silliness, while John Goodman highlights the ever-present comic relief with his delightful Delbert McClintock, a stocky exterminator who knows his way around bugs and is permanently accompanied by a slick theme tune (the chief tarantula also gets its own signature music, courtesy of composer Trevor Jones).
The outstanding score gives the feeling of “Jurassic Park” (the abundant scurriers are just as scary and there’s even a familiar helicopter shot); spider-cam segments supply the audience with an unnerving view of the enemy’s movement; and the careful mix of authentic arachnids with fake ones provides everyone with something to jump at (there’s even a spider love scene). The pacing is near perfect and the dismaying dread is as consistent as the dialogue is humorous. Often misleadingly categorized purely as a comedy, “Arachnophobia” will be quite a shock for audiences expecting a light-hearted feature. Sharply directed by Marshall (who previously produced such adventure classics as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Poltergeist,” and “Gremlins”) and chillingly fun in its execution, this staple of horror comedies has rarely been bested. And viewers will certainly never look at a spider the same way again!
– Mike Massie