Friday Film Review: Arachnophobia

Friday Film Review: Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia (1990)

Genre: Thriller/Comedy

Grade: B-

“My God, it’s just a spider!”

In casting around for this year’s Halloween movie, I remembered this little gem about the numerous offspring of a butt ugly, venomous Venezuelan spider and a hot little Californian babe spider who terrorize an idyllic small town. Yeah, those bastards end up making an earthquake look good in comparison. The “Making of” featurette describes this movie as a “Thrillomedy.” It’s a chance to scream and squirm and laugh. The comedy breaks the tension and the tension builds – scene upon scene – until the final “mano a mano” showdown between the hero and the big, ugly spider. Or maybe it should be “hand to (8) legs” combat.

Dr. Atherton (Julian Sands), hunky spider scientist, is deep in the tepuis of Venezuela searching for new species. Along with the expedition is a photographer who unfortunately ends of being the first victim of an up til then unknown but highly aggressive spider. The spider hitches a ride in the coffin, snacking on its victim as it goes, which is sent back to the small town of Canima, CA.

Cut to Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) who have just moved to Canima where he plans to take over the practice of retiring town doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). Except Sam gets cold feet and balks when the moment of retirement arrives leaving Ross with only one patient, Margaret, who thinks it’s high time Henry hung up his stethoscope. But when Margaret mysteriously dies Ross loses his livelihood until the town football coach gets Ross to give the football team their yearly physicals. And one of them drops dead. With whispers of Doctor Death following him, Ross despairs. Until Metcalf dies.


Totally spooked, Ross orders a complete autopsy which reveals that Metcalf died of an unknown toxic substance. Since Metcalf’s wife mentioned that he was bitten by a spider just before he began to seize and die, Ross contacts the office of (guess who?) Dr. Atherton – the foremost expert on the West coast. An assistant arrives and the hunt is on to find what they’re afraid is a deadly new spider. Meanwhile more people are menaced or bitten, spreading panic in the town. Everyone is finally on board about the seriousness of the situation but is it already too late to save the town and head off disaster?

Like the character Ross Jennings, I hate spiders. I don’t care how big they are or how small they are or if they’re dangerous to humans or not. I just hate ‘em all. So it still astounds me that a friend talked me into going to see this movie when it was first released. I remember about 2/3 of the way through it, I realized that I had my legs drawn up off the floor and my arms pulled in close to my body. Sheepishly, I slowly lowered my feet and casually glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed what I was doing. And that’s when I saw that almost everyone else in the movie theater had done the exact same thing! I didn’t feel so silly then.

The science behind the movie is probably totally off base. I mean, the female spider would probably have been bigger than the male and almost assuredly would have eaten him as an apres smexing snack. I almost have to admire the males who get one shot at glory and then it’s bon appetite. I also laughed when the native guide took the crazy scientists only so far into the wilderness and then basically said, “this is it for me, guys. You nutso types can keep going if you want. Good luck with that.” It’s kind of the wildlife version of “Don’t go down in the dark, creepy basement!!” The movie is chock full of close encounters and almost bites where the audience gets to guess if this is a character who dies or survives. I remember the audience favorite was the middle aged, high school football coach who plunks himself down on the john with his newspaper.

The cast is wonderful, even in the smaller roles, and I’m sure many faces will seem familiar: Mary Carver, Kathy Kinney, Roy Brocksmith and, one of my favorites from several comedy westerns, Henry Jones. Perhaps my favorite is John Goodman as Delbert McClintock – infestation specialist who is ready to spritz these arachnids to kingdom come. And if his environmentally friendly blend doesn’t do the trick, a good stomp with a heavy work boot works just fine (sound effects provided by crunching a bag of potato chips). Julian Sands is still in his dishy phase as he implores – with his cut glass accent – his minion to “get him a specimen” while Harley Jane Kozak looks good in her monstrous early 90s shoulder pads as she urges her spider-phobic husband to overcome his childhood fear of things with eight legs. Everyman Jeff Daniels is the one to save the day though as the man with the initial inkling that Something Is Terribly Wrong Here who goes on to conquer his fear and use his wine cellar to good effect.

If you haven’t seen Arachnophobia yet, give it a try. It serves up lots of laughs alongside the shudders and if you’re like me and prefer your arachnids squished, there’s plenty of that too. Most of us in the theater audience cheered at the flambeed finale. Just check yourself at the midway point and see how far you’ve tucked your feet up from the floor. B-

~Jayne