Published on July 18th, 1990 | by Padraic Coffey0
The phenomenal success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws inspired several imitators, all aiming to replicate its formidable profitability at the box office. These ranged from the enjoyably daft, such Joe Dante’s Piranha, to the ridiculously inept (the barely-seen Grizzly springs to mind). It is not surprising that one of the better monster movies to emerge post-Jaws bore the fingerprints of Spielberg as executive producer. Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia not only invites comparisons with Spielberg’s earlier landmark blockbuster; it also works as a precursor to Jurassic Park, which it predates by three years. Early scenes of helicopters swooping through the Amazonian rainforest could have almost reappeared as stock footage in Spielberg’s dinosaur romp. Arachnophobia reached a much more modestly-sized audience than did Jurassic Park, but it remains a solid thriller which effectively balances scares with a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun.
In the small Californian town of Canaima, newly-arrived GP Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) is greeted with a frosty reception when his only patient dies of inexplicable causes. Jennings’ theory, that the death may have been from a poisonous spider, is met with ridicule among the townsfolk. However, the evidence piles up when a teenager athlete is also killed. It transpires that a photographer who had died on an exhibition to Venezuela had transported a particularly rare and lethal form of spider back to the town in his coffin. The creature subsequently bred with a house-spider, producing a deadly spawn which is burying its way into the homes of the town’s residents.
Were one pedantic enough to keep track of the many similarities between Arachnophobia and Jaws, they may well run of fingers on which to count them. Small-town setting? Check. Newly arrived professional? Check. Scepticism from the locals? Check. Debilitating fears which must be overcome (in the case of Jaws, Sheriff Brody’s aquaphobia; in Arachnophobia, the titular anxiety)? Check. Experts invited to chip in opinions? Check. One-on-one confrontation between man and beast towards the end of the film? Check. The film even offers POV shots from the perspective of the ‘Queen’?
Despite much overlap in terms of narrative, Arachnophobia taps into an even more common fear than Jaws. Most people will never see a shark up close, but how many will have seen a spider? The creatures in Arachnophobia are a seamless blend of living creatures and animatronic models, and even the most outwardly tough viewer may find themselves squirming as the eight-legged bloodsuckers appear everywhere from a bowl of popcorn to a box of cereal. One scene, in which an arachnid finds its way into a shower, could permanently frighten off those getting over the shock of Hitchock’s Psycho thirty years previously. Like other Spielberg-produced films skating outside the horror genre – Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, Joe Dante’s Gremlins – Arachnophobia avoids hardcore scares, though its PG-certificate is surely a by-product of Spielberg’s influence, and not indicative of its unsuitability for young children.
A light-hearted tone is maintained by the presence of John Goodman, then at the height of his fame on television’s Roseanne, as nonchalant exterminator Delbert. Part of the reason Arachnophobia was not the box office success it might have been owes to its marketers, unable to decide on whether its horror or comedy aspects should be played up (trailers dubbed it, quite terribly, a ‘thrill-omedy’). Nonetheless it survives as a cult favourite, and a rare example of contemporary horror that delivers scares without much explicitness.