Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia. Amblin Entertainment 1990.
Arachnophobia. Amblin Entertainment 1990.

Before watching the movie:

I always had the impression that this movie was a horror/monster film, but actually looking at the promotional material, it seems more like a disaster drama in the style of Outbreak, where the disease is more of a force than a monster. In this movie, it appears people are dying of bites from a rare spider, and the experts have to contain the spider. It doesn’t even seem to be an uncanny spider (which would make it more monsterish), just an exotic one.

Jeff Daniels headlines this movie, and I continue to realize how broad his filmography is. At one time, I knew him exclusively as a comedy actor (though I was young enough to confuse him with Dave Coulier), and I think he’s still best known for Dumb and Dumber, but at this point I think I’ve seen him in more serious roles. But maybe I’m assuming too much with this movie.

After watching the movie:

Doctor Ross Jennings moves out to a country town to discover that Doctor Metcalf has changed his mind about retiring, leaving Ross without the practice he was expecting. Then what patients he does have begin dying mysteriously, and Metcalf would rather sow uncertainty about Ross than agree that autopsies should be performed. Signs begin to point to a deadly Venezuelan species of spider that kills in seconds, leading to two problems: one, they’re everywhere in town, and two, Ross has a paralyzing fear of spiders.

I was wrong about the spiders not being uncanny. This is an exotic variety with venom that kills in seconds, has a royal breeding pair/drone reproductive structure, a faster than normal life cycle, and the ability to interbreed with a common American house spider. The “General” spider grows to the size of a small dog, and the General and the Queen both appear to display an intelligence and personality. In tone, the movie reminds me less of Outbreak and more of Jaws, definitely a monster movie. I was expecting a straight drama, but it has a lot of levity. I think I laughed at least as much at Nightmare on Elm Street, but this time I felt like I was expected to.

Daniels is often the straight man to the townfolk, occasionally sarcastic but mostly just being vulnerable and honest. I hadn’t expected John Goodman’s comic character of Delbert the exterminator to be very prominent, but I can’t really point to any character other than Dr. Jennings with more presence. Julian Sands’s entomologist Dr. James Atherton isn’t as major a character as he might be expected to be, though I did appreciate his slightly arrogant “British expert” stock character.

I find spiders no more discomforting than most people, which is plenty to appreciate the creepiness of the plot. I’m much more afraid of, say, falling through a weak floor (which does happen), but I was still effectively unsettled by the rather convincing spiders. The smaller ones I couldn’t even really tell that they were puppetted, assuming they were puppetted and not real spiders coaxed to move in the right direction, which I suspect at least some of them were.

My earlier impression was more correct than what the synopsis I read lead me to believe. This is a monster horror movie with an uncanny exotic spider that can be light without being silly. Not like promotional summaries ever misrepresent what they’re supposed to be selling or anything. This is good for horror fans who don’t necessarily like slashers, gore, or overt sci-fi/fantasy elements. Or anybody who wants a little scare.

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