Synopsis: Everyone is afraid of something…for Dr. Ross Jennings, his phobia is downright embarrassing. But when he moves his family to a small town, the one thing that bugs him most is now harming the townspeople at an alarming rate. For this unlikely hero, overcoming a childhood fear of spiders might just save the community, but it may already be too late!
eyelights: its solid script. its solid cast. its direction.
eyesores: its conventional script. its unexciting cast. its contrivances.
“Honey, we’re in the living room. We need you to kill a spider.”
I’m not afraid of spiders. In fact, I’m one of those rare people who think that spiders are more useful than creepy; without them, I might have many undesirable insects in my house. Whenever I find a spider, I don’t kill it – instead, I capture it and take it outside (my sole reason being to minimize the chance of a spider infestation).
Otherwise, I’m very comfortable cohabitating with garden variety arachnids.
So when ‘Arachnophobia’, a movie revolving around the fear of spiders, came out in 1990, I wasn’t especially intrigued by it. I mean, you might as well make a movie called ‘Papyrophobia’, about people being plagued by paper cuts; I would find that far more frightening. Thus I didn’t bother to see it at the cinema or on home video.
I wasn’t alone. Though the Steven Spielberg-produced film was a mild box office winner at the time, it wasn’t exactly a monstrous hit. But it does have its fans, and not only did it keep popping up everywhere on VHS and DVD, I started reading fairly positive reviews of it in recent years. It seemed as though I might have judged it unfairly.
So relented and picked it up; my newfound curiosity needed satisfying.
The picture revolves around a rare breed of arachnids that an entomologist has found in the Amazon jungle and brought back to the United States for study. The problem is that one of their contingent was bitten and was sent back home to the small town of Canaima, California in a casket that secretly hid one of the deadly spiders.
Meanwhile, Ross Jennings and his family are moving into a large country home in Canaima, in the hope of a simpler life for themselves than in San Francisco. The problem is that their new house is also the refuge of the spider, which manages to breed with local spiders to infest the area. To make matters worse, Ross is arachnophobic.
How will he cope? And how will his family survive?
Frankly, I didn’t much care. Being a family-friendly picture, I knew full-well that nothing remotely bad would happen to any of them. So, between this and my indifference to the spiders, I wasn’t especially invested in the plight of the Jennings family – or of the townsfolk, who are mostly caricatures merely existing for levity’s sake.
On top of that, much of the picture is wrapped up in motion picture conventions, such as a tour guide that won’t follow a group of explorers past a point he deems too dangerous, a scientist who is strangely inattentive to detail or is flat-out careless, a hero with a phobia to overcome, the hero’s warning not being heeded, …etc.
In many ways, ‘Arachnophobia’ is a cooker-cutter picture.
But a well-crafted one: Amblin Entertainment certainly didn’t skimp on its budget – for instance, they took the crew to Venezuela for the opening sequence. The scale of all those mountains, the massive waterfalls, the endless forests is so grandiose, so epic, that it’s mind-boggling to think that all of this this real – this is not CGI.
That alone is worth the 110-minute runtime.
And the picture does have its clever moments, like introducing a new crew member to the explorer’s team. Though it doesn’t make much sense that he would take the gig without a briefing, by not knowing what he’s getting into, he becomes a surrogate for the audience, asking questions for us and filling the blanks where possible.
It also benefits from a more measured pacing, one that was fairly typical of early Spielberg productions; ‘Arachnophobia’ takes its time setting the stage, and serves up ample amounts of character development, as we meet all the townsfolk, and Ross’s career situation becomes clear. It allows us to care about its diverse personages.
The performances are good all around, but the two stand-out ones come from Jeff Daniels, who plays Ross seriously, showing his terror of spiders without overdoing it, and John Goodman’s dry but droll turn as Delbert, an exterminator initially called in to inspect for termites in the Jennings home. The pair transcend the blandness.
But they can’t make up for the picture’s predictability. Or its conveniences, which expect from us some mild suspension of disbelief. The ending, sadly, is so preposterously machinated that I just couldn’t get into it; it’s one thing to want a smooth wrap-up, but it’s quite another to fall into farce territory in the picture’s last few gasps.
Had the picture been funny before that point, I might have bitten.
Not this time.
Still, I suspect that ‘Arachnophobia’ would play well with people who get an icky feeling around creepy-crawlies. And it’s a fairly safe motion picture for the whole family if one is looking for something a bit spooky that isn’t extremely violent, gory or traumatic – so long as the kids aren’t deeply scarred by all those spiders, that is.
I don’t find them scary, but some people do.
Date of viewing: October 15, 2016