Looking back at Arachnophobia and its PG-rated horror

Feature Simon Brew 24 Jun 2014 - 06:13

Arachnophobia: the film that mixed Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman and some spiders. Here's our lookback...

There aren't, if you think about it, too many PG-rated horror movies. There are plenty of family-rated movies that have moments of horror in them - Toy Story 3 for a start. But an entire movie pretty much devoted to giving you the creeps, that everyone can see? That's very much the exception to a very firm rule.

So long time Steven Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall was onto some challenge from the moment he decided to take on Arachnophobia for his directorial debut. Notwithstanding the fact that Marshall was citing the likes of The Birds as his influences (although it wasn't the sole Hitchcock nod: a shower scene towards the end of the movie has Psycho tattooed throughout it) - thus, not 100% a horror movie - the film was always going to be a tough sell. In fact, the muddled advertising for the movie couldn't make up its mind whether it was flogging a thriller, a horror or a comedy, instead coining the word 'thrill-omedy' for its television promo spots. To my knowledge, no human being, at least until today, has ever used the word 'thrill-omedy' since. Nor should they.

Arachnophobia, then, did reasonably well at the box office, but not much more than that. Expected to be a decent hit, it took just over $50m at the US box office. That's not bad, certainly - particularly given that this was back in 1990, before the bylaw was passed that said every film had to make $500m if it wanted to be known as a hit - but less than many had anticipated.

Yet in hindsight, it's a positive it got that high. The last film genuine arachnophobics were likely to see in a dark room, after all, was a film about killer spiders. For the broader crowd, Die Hard 2 had opened in the States the week before, and Presumed Innocent popped along the week after, both of those proving to be box office successes. That $50m suddenly looks rather decent.

Creepy Crawlies

But what's more important than that is how effective Arachnophobia remains. It's not only a good, solid debut from a feature director, but it's also a surprisingly effective mix of comedy and horror. Or com-orror, if you like. Which you shouldn't.

In fact, Arachnophobia's horror leanings are evident far beyond the spiders themselves. Marshall's film finds the kind of American small town that many horror films have thrived on. Thus, the small town here is suitably suspicious of outsiders, so when Jeff Daniels as Dr Ross Jennings turns up, looking to take over as town physician from the supposedly retiring Dr Metcalf (played by the late Henry Jones), you rightly suspect things aren't going to plan.

For in spite of uprooting his family on the understanding that Dr Metcalf was set to retire, Dr Jennings finds that he's decided to put that off. Thus, a small town that only needs one doctor suddenly has two of them, and one of them has sold up his entire city life to get there. Oops.

Marshall uses the conflict between the two doctors - a friendly, edgy conflict as it's presented on screen for the most part (well, until Metcalf threatens to report Jennings) - to highlight the divisions. He takes time to set up the friction between human beings, setting themselves slightly against each other, before his spiders really find their bite.

As it happens, Dr Jennings keeps getting things right, but nobody believes him. Dr Metcalf keeps calling things wrong, but because he's the town doctor and has been for eons, everyone takes him at face value. It doesn't help, of course, that the few patients Jennings seems to attract have a habit of dying.

And they die because of the spiders. Which means it's long past time we talk about Julian Sands.

Let's Talk About Julian Sands

When the biography of Julian Sands comes to be written, there will be plenty of merits to discuss. There was Warlock, for goodness sake! The man who played Yves in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch! And what about his work in The Killing Fields? Sands has an admirable collection of quality credits, and has been part of lots of films we really like.

Yet more often than not, Sands is remembered for a pair of performances that... well, let's go with the fact that they do not show him at his best.

There were all sorts of things wrong with Boxing Helena for a start - in which he took the lead - beyond the performances. Yet you would be remiss to suggest he offers much aid to a very muddled motion picture.

But there's not getting away from it: he pitches his work in Arachnophobia badly. In fact, his approach seems to home in on pure absolute disinterest in human form, when said human had just taken a tour around the Ronseal factory. His character is supposed to be a spider expert, to add gravitas to what's going to happen. He's supposed to be the wise one. Only he isn't. For instead, you can't help but sit there and wonder what the people they turned down were like. Were the rest of the auditions cancelled? Had Frank Marshall and his casting team been on the sauce? Has someone just beaten Sands' score at Tetris?

It's a major problem because Sands is a key component of the film's expensive prologue - and setup - where the bulk of the budget appears to be spent (the rest of the movie is relatively contained). Doubling up as a scouting recce for Congo (Marshall's 1995 gorilla-fest), here we find a team in the Amazon rainforest looking for new species of arachnids.

They only go and bloody well find one too, and through a contrivance that the film wisely skips through at pace, one such deadly creepy crawlie - that's killed all wildlife within range of its usual habit - ends up stuck in a coffin, ready to be shipped back to the US.

The coffin contains a man, soon to be without any blood in his body, who lives in the small town that Dr Jennings is moving into. Thus, spider exits coffin, sort of chases a dog and cat, is picked up by a crow (yep, that happened, via a POV shot no less), kills the crow, and ends up in Dr Jennings' new barn. There, it finds a female domestic house spider, and the pair read 50 Shades Of Grey together, have a sixteen-legged flip and fumble, and deadly baby spiders are the end result.

Small Town

Marshall is far more at home with his film once all this has happened, too, and the film is at its best in the middle segment. And he shoots his horror scenes with real aplomb. He's dealing with very small killers here, and he wisely interjects them into the most domestic scenes he can find. So, a couple sat eating popcorn together while watching the telly. A sportsman sticking his helmet on. Sitting down and relaxing at the end of a long day with a glass of milk. Nothing overly dramatic, just something so pedestrian and ordinary - in a film where quick edits are already very much the exception - that happens to be ruined by the odd fatal spider bite or two.

It helps too that spiders as a foe are equally recognisable. We've argued before that real critters beat CG things when it comes to injecting fear in motion pictures, and here's further proof. Marshall used hundreds of real spiders in the making of Arachnophobia, apparently shepherded to where they needed to be on set by use of temperature. Only two of the spiders needed to be models, the rest were real. You can tell.

Furthermore Marshall, as much as possible, keeps his spiders on the edge of the frame. These are slow foes, zombie-like as they gradually hit their eventual target. He shoots them low, he shoots them in silhouette, and he keeps calm. You get no Michael Bay-esque slow-mo shots, or over the top explosions. Marshall chooses to aim small, and hits his targets far more often as a result.

Lightness

It certainly helps the impact of the horror moments in Arachnophobia that Frank Marshall is willing to keep the film light as well. In fact, moments of Arachnophobia are exceptionally funny, particularly when John Goodman mosies on in from some other film.

Delbert is the big exterminator, and Goodman - with his dry, drawling delivery - is clearly having a huge amount of fun playing the role. He's blatantly useless for the most part, becoming useful almost only by accident. Need to capture a spider alive? He's not your man, with his giant clodhoppers squelching a little critter into oblivion instead.

The better than you might remember score, from Trevor Jones, adds to the playfulness of Delbert, giving him his own little theme tune effectively. But he's one of those brilliant comedy side characters who talks as if he knows exactly what he's going on about, when clearly he's just a man with some bloody good spray, and very big feet. Marshall at one stage shoots him as if he's an action hero too. Rightly so.

Pan And Scan

On a technical note, it's clear that Arachnophobia was shot in an era where most of us eventually watched films on a 4:3 screen. Notwithstanding the expansive prologue, when the film lands in America, prepare for a collection of scenes with talking heads in the middle of the frame. This was commonplace at the time, with the video market far more lucrative than cinema, and with one eye on minimising the loathed pan and scan effect.

If you never had the pleasure of pan and scan, try watching the iconic moment in Alien 3, where the alien sidles up next to Ripley's face and prepares to bite. On a cinema screen, this was contained in one frame. On video, it was necessary to pan from one face to the other, deadening the impact of the shot.

Arachnophobia doesn't need to go to that extreme, mind, because it never really pushes the boundaries enough to warrant it. But again, Marshall knows his horror. You work within the confines of what you have to work with, and land your punches accurately. Arachnophobia is thus rarely an ambitiously shot film, but it is an effective one.

The End

The only point in Arachnophobia where it all just starts to become something else is the ending. It becomes like a videogame boss level, but even then, it does at least have some charm. How many films have ended up with a man scared of spiders lobbing bottles of vintage wine at a big one that's trying to kill him? Furthermore, the moment where Dr Jennings finally kills the spider by setting it on fire and then blasting it with a nailgun, perfectly into the main nest, is up there with the CG gorillas getting their hands shot off by lasers in Marshall's later film, Congo.

Jeff Daniels has a fine line in looking petrified, incidentally. It's a surprise he never got an invite to Jurassic Park.

Bottom line though: the movie still works, and works well. Arachnophobia was and is a really good B movie, that plays to a family audience for large parts, but also isn't afraid to inject a surprising amount of horror when it needs to.

How haunting you find it depends on your feelings towards eight legged creatures, but it certainly stands up. That's the beauty of relying on practical work for so much of the production: real never ages in the way that computer graphics do (not that computer graphics were really an option for this one).

I'd still pay to see a Delbert spin-off movie, too.

See also: Looking back at Frank Marshall's Congo: the barmiest blockbuster of the 1990s.

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