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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

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

20 Comments

  1. Maddie
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 09:49:16

    Oh the movie I watched only once because of my fear of spiders. True story I’m almost killed myself twice because of a spider webbing down in my face while driving.

    I’m screaming my stupid head off while trying to see where the he/she/it was and making sure it didn’t eat me and I look up and I’m on the other side of the road (no I’m not in England) thank God there was no on coming traffic or I would have or could have killed someone.

  2. Ridley
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 11:02:48

    I watched this movie with two friends during a sleepover right after it came out on VHS. Right before we were about to curl up on our sleeping bags and crash on the living room floor, we noticed a spider on the wall on the far side of the room. Like any self-respecting trio of 10-year old girls spotting a spider after watching Arachnophobia, we freaked right the fuck out.

    Neither of us were willing to get close enough to smack it, lest it leap off the wall and destroy us all, so we commenced our assault by throwing change at it. When that did nothing but make noise, I aimed my baseball glove at it. Upon realizing that none of us could aim worth a good god damn, we had to re-strategize. My friend had a stroke of brilliance – grab the can of AquaNet in the downstairs bathroom and freeze the sonofabitch.

    It was genius – until the spider was so well frozen that it fell off the wall and out of sight.

    As anyone afraid of spiders knows, the only thing worse than spotting a spider near you is not seeing where the damn thing went. So we had to get out of there, fast. Unfortunately the door to the stairs for my bedroom were by the wall the spider had been on. Naturally that bloodthirsty arachnid was lying in wait for us, camouflaged by the braided wool rug, so we couldn’t walk on the floor. No way! Instead, we lay the couch cushions out like stepping stones and dashed across them and the coffee table to escape upstairs.

    Once free of the spider’s menace, all three of us slept in my twin bed. There was no way in hell any of us were sleeping on the floor.

    Scary stuff.

  3. Ana
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 11:38:47

    I remember seeing this in a drive-thru double feature with Dick Tracy. I don’t remember much of either (there was alcohol involved), but I remember finding Arachnophobia so hilarious I fell off the roof of the car (I mentioned there was alcohol involved, right?). The only other spider movie I find so-bad-it’s-good is Eight Legged Freaks. Of course, I don’t know if there are any other spider movies. Suggestions?

    @Ridley: I have had experiences like yours after watching horror movies. After my friends and I watched the movie Bug (1975), I don’t think I could pick up a phone without trepidation for weeks after.

  4. cleo
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 15:12:33

    @Ridley: This made me LOL for real.

  5. LeeF
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 15:38:31

    On a personal note: in the first picture, the actor on the left in the hat is my husband’s uncle, Mark Taylor. He is one of those actors who has worked in many televison shows since the 80’s, aged well, has done great voice over work and now directs!

  6. Jayne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:25:15

    @Maddie: Yep, I’ve had one drop down right in front of my nose while driving. So, I’m screaming bloody murder and swatting wildly at it as I pull up to a stop light when I just happen to glance to my side and notice the guy in the car next to mine staring at me as if I’m insane. The light changes and he takes off like a drag racer to get away from my crazy self… Never did get that damn spider.

  7. Maddie
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:38:15

    I have spiders in my mini van. Where I live and park (no garage) so they hide in the outside mirror and walk across the windshield and crawl and hide in the wiper blades.

    In the 80′ s remake of The Thing when the guys head turns into the spider skeeves me out to this day.

    I bet that guy thought you were having an episode! !!!!

  8. Jayne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:38:23

    @Ridley: I’m so glad I didn’t have a mouthful of something liquid while reading this. Your story kind of reminds me of when I was back in college and my room mate spotted a spider crawling across the carpet in our room. We’re yelling and hopping up and down, looking for something to kill it with, when she screams “Get the hairspray!” I can’t remember what brand it was but it must not be as good a hold as AquaNet. The spritzed spider is still staggering around and we’re still screaming when it dawns on us that this just ain’t gonna kill it. So we grabbed for a heavy text book – best damn use either of us got from it that semester – and whaled away at it. That finally killed the little sumbitch.

  9. Jayne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:43:15

    @Maddie: Have you ever seen the mid 70s horror movie “Curse of the Black Widow” with Patty Duke? There’s a character that can turn into a huge spider and you can always tell when you’re seeing things from the spider’s POV because the picture turns from one to eight frames. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks.

  10. Jayne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:49:50

    @LeeF: Oh, how fun! Next time you see him, tell him he does a good death scene.

  11. Jayne
    Oct 26, 2012 @ 18:53:56

    @Ana: I think this would be a a great movie to pair with alcohol – you could turn it into a drinking game and be smashed in no time. ;)

  12. LeeF
    Oct 27, 2012 @ 06:55:29

    My DH and I used to be scared of spiders. Then we moved to the lake where spider life is an on-going, daily, learn-to-live-with them kind of thing. Movie spiders (such as Aragog in Harry Potter) still scare me to death!

  13. Jayne
    Oct 27, 2012 @ 07:39:08

    @LeeF: Blech. A friend of mine knew someone who lived in (I think) SoCal who said she had a yearly tarantula migration through her back yard. http://www.orkin.com/other/spiders/tarantulas-and-migration/

    I would just have to pack up and move.

  14. Maddie
    Oct 27, 2012 @ 10:17:18

    @Jayne. No never heard of it but it sounds freaky. I do have to confess its not just spiders I’m afraid of but insects in general I do like Ladybugs and don’t mind them touching me, but anything else landing on me, I let out scream that will give any Scream Queen a run for their money.

  15. dri
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 06:37:04

    Comedy?! Comedy?!

    That movie GAVE me arachnophobia and I still have shudders when I think of … arrgh.

    Oh god, I hope I sleep tonight.

    (such a wuss.)

  16. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 06:57:08

    @dri: Oh, dear. Then please don’t watch any of the other movies mentioned in the comments. Especially the “Black Widow” one. And don’t imagine a spider with about a 6 foot leg span….

  17. cleo
    Oct 28, 2012 @ 12:28:57

    @Maddie: @Jayne: There’s a Nalini Singh short story with a similar scene – the (human) heroine sees a spider in the car, screams, and temporarily deafens the changeling hero in the car with her – and maybe makes his ears bleed.

    We have an extremely persistent spider living in the side mirror of our car – every time I come out, there’s a new spider web. As long as it stays outside of the car, I can admire its tenacity.

  18. Nicole
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 18:47:25

    Nobody has mentioned Kingdom of the Spiders? With Shatner? *shudder* My mom used to stop on it whenever she saw it on to watch me squirm and run shrieking from the room. I remember when my family rented Arachnophobia. I was the only one who couldn’t watch. I’d peek around the corner at the screen every once in awhile, but I couldn’t watch any more than that.

  19. Jayne
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 19:04:28

    @Nicole: I vaguely remember hearing about how awful this movie is and from what you say about it, I think I’ll keep avoiding seeing it!

  20. Nicole
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 21:17:59

    Do avoid it. In the end, the spiders win.

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