At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Arachnophobia “90”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Arachnophobia “90”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Dark Comedy Horror Thriller/ Stars: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Brian McNamara, James Handy, Peter Jason, Henry Jones, Frances Bay, Mark L. Taylor, Roy Brocksmith, Kathy Kinney, Stuart Pankin, Mary Carver, Marlene Katz/ Runtime: 110 minutes

If there is a single thing that I have heard a lot of people tell me they are deathly afraid of, a pair of things are usually mentioned more than most: snakes and spiders. Honestly it’s not hard to see why dear reader: they’re creepy, they’re crawly, and both groups also usually take great delight in killing people in horror films (go figure). With that being said, five guesses and the first 4 and a half don’t count as to what fear this slice of cinematic pie decides to deal with in a manner that will leave you both laughing whilst also squirming in your seat. Yeah it’s not exactly the one with no legs, but points for effort though the title should’ve given you a big clue. Don’t worry though: if you want a movie that deals with our snake friends then sooner or later I’ll get to at least one of the Anaconda films so you snake “lovers” like myself out there will most assuredly thank me then. As for those of you who “adore” read: hate with a thriving passion spiders…..I can promise you that this is NOT the movie you want to watch because all this will do is make that fear of yours that much worse. If on the other hand you want to see a delightful 90s throwback to both films like Gremlins which were both scary yet funny at the same time as well as those wonderfully cheesy creature feature films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s like Piranha from 1978 or (especially) Kingdom of the Spiders with William Shatner from 1977 then you should definitely check this out. Indeed its web might not be the most well-spun in the group known as creature features, but Arachnophobia is still a quite delightfully darkly comical and yet also quite thrilling if not downright terrifying at points look into what happens when a “much loved” member of nature with multiple eyes, several nasty fangs, and a killer attitude decides to test us and see if perhaps they could do a better job at being the superior species on this planet even if it means eradicating us in the process….

The plot is as follows: Arachnophobia starts its riveting web of a tale (pun intended) in the jungles of Venezuela in South America where we witness as a photographer of some skill by the name of Jerry Manley arrives at a research base run by a renowned insect scientist named Dr. Atherton just in time to head off with the good doc on a research expedition. An expedition we come to learn that involves Atherton, Manley, and the research team heading into a newly discovered sinkhole which may contain organisms never before studied by mankind. Of course with all of this excitement going on, Manley fails to notice as one particularly creepy crawly, in the form of a larger than usual arachnid, decides to hitch a ride out of dodge in his backpack. Things soon take a turn though for the horrific when, upon returning to base camp, Manley goes to lie down and is quickly and ruthlessly exterminated by this spider menace. Upon discovering his corpse, Atherton (without checking for a cause) orders his body shipped back to his home in the United States and during the loading, our new spider friend decides to come along for the ride. From there, we see that the spider makes his way to Manley’s hometown of Canaima in California where our main hero, a devoted to his patients, his family, and a healthy fear of arachnids in equal measure doctor by the name of Jennings has just settled with his loving family unit. However, when people around town start mysteriously dying as a result of this arachnid wrecking some serious 8-legged mayhem, it’ll up to Jennings, a goofy yet passionate exterminator by the name of Delbert, Atherton, and a steadily dwindling group of survivors to fight back lest they wish to see their home overtaken by this fanged menace….

Now right off the bat I am going to just come right out and say that it is not an accident that the main producer on this was none other than film icon Steven Spielberg (courtesy of his Amblin Pictures label) with HIS regular producer, and occasional second unit helmer, Frank Marshall being given the opportunity to take the reins on this one. I say that because before anything else you must know about Spielberg it is worth knowing that the man has a love and knowledge for film that few others, save for perhaps Scorsese, even in his own industry possess. As such, it is not that hard to see the moments in this film that were inspired by others like it with perhaps the biggest examples being Kingdom of the Spiders in 1977 and Gremlins from 1984 respectively. I say those 2 specifically because the first one is where we get this slice of cinematic pie’s general premise of killer spiders launching an all-out assault on small town America with only a stalwart hero and a small group of followers (that as the movie goes on tends to get even smaller) in their way of accomplishing their goal of complete and utter domination and/or annihilation over mankind. As for why I listed Gremlins, it’s because Gremlins best represents the overall flow of how this movie operates. By that I mean this movie, very much like Gremlins, has moments that will either thrill or just scare the socks off of you period especially if you are someone who has no love lost when it comes to spiders. At the same time though, Marshall (taking inspiration from what Spielberg did with Gremlins) manages to pepper moments of dark comedy throughout in order to give the audience a bit of a lull before then going back at it with the thrills. In many respects then, this slice of cinematic pie is the film equivalent of a rollercoaster: by that I mean this movie tends to do a fantastic job at keeping you both nervously yet genuinely chuckling whilst you wait for the next jolt and then back on the edge of your seat when the thrills do come around (oftentimes unexpectedly) and the end result truly is no more and no less than movie magic at its finest.

Now the cast in this slice of cinematic pie all manage to do a wonderful job in their respective parts in this. Indeed make no mistake dear reader: each and every single one of the actors involved in this knows 110% the kind of movie that they are making. This of course starts with the spiders who all manage to turn in wonderful performances and honestly should have been nominated for all the Arachnemy Awards that particular year especially when you realize that about 95% of the spiders on screen were real spiders (to all of you who hate spiders: you’re welcome). As for the human counterparts they are in conflict with, I must admit I am also impressed with the work they turned out as well. Indeed in the stalwart and highly reluctant hero role we get Jeff Daniels who is truly terrific. Indeed I have always been a fan of Jeff Daniels and his work, but this is a unique role for him as not only is he the lead, but he also gives off a wonderful vibe of determined, terrified out of his mind, reluctant heroic, and yet also courageous when need be that I felt suited the character of Jennings perfectly. Also doing good work is Julian Sands from Warlock as Doctor Atherton. No it’s not the biggest part in the room, but Sands does a great job at bringing his trademark no nonsense with a hint of smarmy demeanor to what could have easily been a one-note role. Yet even when taking into account the work done by such iconic character actors as Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Roy Brocksmith, Henry Jones, and James Handy among others there is still one performance that deserves mention above all others. That of course is John Goodman as Delbert the Exterminator or as I call him: Dan from Roseanne if he got away from Roseanne long before The Connors spin-off show. Now, as with Daniels, I have always been fond of Goodman and the work he has done over his long and storied career, but this role is just a special kind of magic all its own. He maybe has about 35-40 minutes of screen time tops, but Goodman manages to just make this character work in a way that I can’t see many (if anyone else frankly) other actors pulling off. I mean not only is this guy just the most delightfully clueless professional in the extermination business I have ever seen, but the fact that he still has such confidence and swagger in who he is, what he does, and what he thinks he knows makes this character just an outright hoot whenever he appears on screen.

All in all equal parts potent spider venom, darkly comedic, and actually quite suspenseful at points, I think it is safe to say that the 1990 slice of cinematic pie that is Arachnophobia is a true blue winner in every sense of the word. Yet, for how wonderful this Charlotte’s Web if Charlotte desired to kill the humans for constantly eating Wilbur tale is it is still a slice of cinematic pie that has by and large sadly fallen under the radar by and large with the movie going community and to me that is a shame. Yes it’s perhaps not the most original movie out there by any means, but in all fairness this is meant to be a throwback to a kind of film where originality was never meant to be part of the equation. Rather, it was just about sitting down in a dark theater with a tub full of hot buttered popcorn and then being entertained (whilst also trying to make sure nothing had crawled into your popcorn) plain and simple. Suffice it to say then that if you go into this film looking for the next prestige or arthouse film you are going to walk out feeling pretty disappointed because this most definitely is not the slice of cinematic pie for you. If however you go into this looking to be thrilled, amused, or both then you came to the right place. Indeed, thanks in large part to wonderful work done behind the camera courtesy of Frank Marshall and co., and terrific work done in front of the camera by Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, a talented group of character actors, and one truly iconic co-starring performance by John Goodman that you have to see to believe, Arachnophobia is one slice of cinematic pie that will spin a web for you that I promise you will want to revisit time and time again…..just make sure to always look under your couch before you do. After all: you never know what else might be there watching the movie with you….. On a scale of 1-5 I give Arachnophobia a solid 3.5 out of 5.