Frank Marshall’s name appears as a producer on many wildly successful movies and franchises; Gremlins, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, and Jason Bourne, plus The Sixth Sense, Signs, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and more. He was a Steven Spielberg go-to for much of the ‘80s. Thus, it’s easy to forget his side hustle as an occasional director. That directing career centers on the kind of movies that might have been taken on by, if not quite a Spielberg, at least a talented Spielberg contemporary like Robert Zemeckis or Joe Dante. Indeed, Marshall’s Arachnophobia, now on Blu-ray for the first time, comes from Spielberg’s Amblin (and was executive-produced by Spielberg himself).
Though it was released in the summer of 1990, not far from Gremlins 2 and Back to the Future Part III, Arachnophobia doesn’t reside in the pantheon of Spielberg-Zemeckis-Dante family-friendly thrillers of the ‘80s—a reasonable oversight owing to its deficiencies in anarchic bite (the Gremlins movies), boundless energy (Indiana Jones pictures), or fast-beating heart (the Back to the Future trilogy). Yet those deficiencies (like most spider bites) are not fatal, not remotely; Arachnophobia is a lot of B-team, B-movie fun.
That said, in contrast with the breakneck Spielberg/Zemeckis style, the film’s pacing isn’t always drum-tight, especially in the opening sequence, which involves giving nearly 20 minutes (which is to say almost a fifth of the film’s running time) over to characters who, save one, do not appear in the rest of the movie. The set-up is classic creature horror, starting in a purportedly exotic location with what will serve as an explanation of the creature’s origins and capabilities, but it’s also weirdly roundabout way of saying: a photographer accompanying some scientists got bit by a huge spider, which hitched a ride back to the photographer’s California hometown of Canaima in the coffin.
As soon as Arachnophobia reaches that archetypal small town, though, it becomes a droller and more playful movie. We meet Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), a doctor from San Francisco who has relocated his family with the understanding that he will replace the retiring doctor (Henry Jones) and inherit his patients. But the older doctor decides not to retire, leaving Jennings adrift and questioning his abandoning of the big city. The movie plays up the city-country conflict: many citizens of Caniama are virulently anti-autopsy, which becomes a problem when people start dropping dead and Jennings gets the blame.
Of course, the movie comes out in favor of science in order to fight against a spider threat that is entirely made up by the filmmakers. But that cheeky irony is part of the movie’s fun, as well as an easy mechanism by which Jennings (who, we learn, has a paralyzing fear of spiders) seems even more likable—perhaps not necessary, given the amusing Daniels performance and a script that gives him most of its best understated sarcasm. Daniels is so good, in fact, that the lack of Jaws-style cast chemistry seems like a waste: John Goodman is on hand (and very funny) as a folksy exterminator, but the two different but equally bland scientist characters dispatched to help Canaima dilute any hope of comic teamwork.
As horror, Arachnophobia works one trick for most of its running time: spiders creeping along, unseen by the characters, who then either get bit, or narrowly avoid getting bit. But Marshall comes up with plenty of ways to goose and monster-ize spiders that, even at their most grotesquely large, aren’t imposingly cinematic on their own, using point of view shots, shadowy projections, and creepy juxtapositions (all of which look serviceable if not exactly gorgeous in the Blu-ray release). If this hadn’t been a Disney production, the shot of a spider sliding between a girl’s cleavage in the shower could’ve been the poster.
It takes Jennings a stupidly long time to forge any real connection between the gigantic spider web in his barn and his suspicion of fatal spider bites around town, but once he does, the movie uncorks for a rollicking final 20 minutes, pitting him against spiders mounting a home invasion. This sequence culminates in perhaps the most delightful moment in the movie: a ground-level shot following the biggest spider as it ducks behind debris, eluding Jennings.
Moments like these fuse the horrific and comic elements of Arachnophobia perfectly; they also made me realize, rewatching the film, how tricky the movie’s tone would be to replicate today. The spiders would have to be bigger (a la Eight-Legged Freaks), their effects gorier, the dialogue a shade or two dumber. It seems that even coming at the end of the ‘80s’ comic-thrill heyday, the genre-blending wasn’t an easy sell: the Blu-ray’s supplements include a now-vintage 1990 trailer, attempting to sell the movie, correctly but perhaps awkwardly, as a “thrillomedy”. The term hasn’t caught on. I’m not sure if the movie, a minor hit in 1990, has, either. But I’m glad Disney has put it out in high-def: the shelf-life of grinning little thrillers like this tends to be surprisingly long.