Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Film Appreciation - Don't Bug Me

Cody Hamman spins a web of Film Appreciation for 1990's Arachnophobia.

Looking back, it seems sort of surprising that a movie about a town infested by killer spiders would make such a splash, but as I recall the release of Arachnophobia was a big deal back in 1990. It was such a big deal that even some of the kids I attended Christian school with at the time watched the movie, and they didn't usually watch horror movies of any sort. I'm not sure why they were allowed to watch Arachnophobia. Maybe the PG-13 rating made it seem more acceptable to their parents. Maybe the spiders were a horrific threat that parents felt more comfortable allowing their children to see, more so than slashers and gut-munching zombies. Or maybe it was the Steven Spielberg stamp of approval that made it all seem safer. It was probably the Spielberg connection that helped make this story of killer spiders as big as it was at the time, going hand in hand with the real arachnophobia suffered by many of its viewers.

I know I was certainly caught up in Arachnophobia fever. Not because I'm scared of spiders, but simply because I was a horror fan drawn to the idea of killer spiders. I saw and enjoyed the trailers, but I can't recall whether or not I got out to see Arachnophobia in the theatre. I'm not sure. I don't know if my mom would have taken me to see the movie, since she wasn't a fan of arachnids. But I do know for sure that I snatched the film up for a viewing as soon as it hit VHS, and that I owned a copy of the comic book adaptation.

Arachnophobia marks the feature directorial debut of producer Frank Marshall, a longtime associate of executive producer Steven Spielberg's, and the film does feel very much like a Spielberg picture. Boasting that familiar Amblin charm, it begins in a way reminiscent of Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park (which was still a few years away), with nature photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) joining entomologist James Atherton (Julian Sands) on an expedition into the Venezuelan rainforest to search for undiscovered species of spiders that may have been surviving in isolation for millions of years.

Atherton is a little too successful – he does indeed find an unknown species of spider, which has a venom so toxic that it kills Manley with one bite. The spider then hitches a ride with Manley in his coffin, which is shipped back home to Canaima, California.

Once in Canaima, the spider takes refuge in a barn, where it mates with a domestic spider, creating a whole new species of spiders with that same deadly bite. I feel this was a clever move on the part of Marshall and writers Don Jakoby, Al Williams, and Wesley Strick – by creating a new deadly species (with no genetic experiments necessary), they don't have to explain why a species we're all already familiar with is suddenly going nuts. This is the first time these spiders have ever existed in civilization. And go nuts they do, proceeding to crawl all over town, bringing death to old and young.

The task of dealing with this issue falls on the shoulders of arachnophobic doctor Ross Jennings, a very likeable character played by Jeff Daniels. Jennings knows there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the deaths of these Canaima residents, but he's new to town – he and his family just moved there from San Francisco – and the older, set-in-his-ways, out-of-touch local doctor (Henry Jones) refuses to listen to his theories that these weren't just natural deaths. The sheriff, a former schoolyard bully played by Stuart Pankin, isn't any help, either. Jennings just can't get any support... until it's beyond obvious that he's right.

Soon Jennings is trying to solve the spider problem with the help of Atherton, Atherton's assistant Chris Collins (Brian McNamara), and quirky exterminator Delbert McClintock. Delbert is played by John Goodman, delivering a show-stealing performance at the height of Roseanne greatness. Goodman did a lot to draw younger viewers into seeing Arachnophobia; the chance to see Dan Conner fighting spiders and swaggering off from one encounter while saying "That's right, I'm bad", a moment featured in the trailer, was too good to pass up.

Those are our heroes who set out to save Canaima, and we root for them even though Canaima seems like a pretty miserable place. There aren't many likeable characters around here, the unpleasant doctor and sheriff are just part of an overall issue in this town. That's okay, Jennings and Delbert are likeable enough to make up for anyone else.

Arachnophobia is such an equal mixture of thrills and comedy that the marketing department wasn't even sure how to sell it at the time, trying to coin the phrase "thrill-omedy" to describe it. That didn't catch on. Regardless, the mixture works. There's good humor, and good thrills, thanks to the fact that the spiders are so deadly that they come off as being exceptionally creepy, even if you don't have arachnophobia. There's a big difference between a regular spider and these little bastards that can kill anyone with one single bite. You see one of these deadly things crawling around and it instantly puts you on edge.

The spiders are realized on screen through the use of harmless Avondale spiders from New Zealand, a couple of tarantulas (the General and Queen of the spider hierarchy), and fake spider effects, which MythBusters' Jamie Hyneman had a hand in crafting. These things are effective whether they're flooding the screen or just creeping through scenes by themselves. Things get a little goofball toward the ending, when Jennings faces his fears and goes to battle with the General and Queen, but it's not too over-the-top and it's all in fun.

Arachnophobia isn't a film I've watched a whole lot of times over the last twenty-seven years, I probably read that comic book adaptation more times than I've ever watched the movie, but whenever I do revisit it I always enjoy it, and I always feel nostalgia for those days when it was just reaching theatres and VHS. This is one of those films that had an indelible impact on my childhood; I will always associate it with my elementary school days. It was part of my earliest years of becoming a film fanatic, one of those building block releases.

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