Saturday, April 18, 2015

#205: Arachnophobia (Frank Marshall, 1990)

1990's Arachnophobia is an homage to '50s monster movies, an example of the once-thriving wave of post-Gremlins PG-13 family horror films, a wistful reminder of pre-CGI handmade effects, a powerful Hollywood mega-producer's first stab at feature film directing, and a time capsule of late '80s/early '90s American mainstream culture and its attendant biases. It's also a pleasantly entertaining slice of Hollywood product with a likable cast and some real jolts of suspense. I hadn't seen the film since I was 13 and it was a new release at the video store (at a school friend's house for what we so quaintly called "VCR parties" back in junior high -- the other movie on the bill that night was Die Hard 2), and it played much the same way, if my foggy memory is accurate.
 Arachnophobia begins in an unnamed South American country the filmmakers don't bother revealing as Venezuela until halfway through the film. A regular joe fish out of water type, Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor), is inexplicably hired as a photographer for big shot entomologist James Atherton (Julian Sands) as he collects specimens of rare insects in the South American jungle. Long story short, there are some seriously fucked up spiders in a small area only reachable by helicopter, Manley is bit and dies, and one of the spiders hitches a ride in the man's coffin back to his idyllic (and fictional) small California hometown of Canaima. The megaspider escapes and makes its way to the newly purchased country home of Ross and Molly Jennings (Jeff Daniels and Harley Jane Kozak), newly arrived with their two young children from San Francisco. Ross is a doctor with an overwhelming fear of spiders who's taking over the town's family practice from retiring old coot Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), and Molly is an ex-stock broker who wants to concentrate on her photography. The killer spider ends up in their barn and mates with one of today's average nonkiller spiders, and, in a long cinematic tradition, skips thousands of years of evolution and turns immediately into a new, aggressive killer species that begins attacking the town (a town with only one high school, doctor, and policeman, but also parking meters, for some reason.) We also get John Goodman as exterminator Delbert McClintock (complete with his own smooth jazz theme music, oddly enough), Deadwood's Peter Jason as the ultra-macho football coach, and lots of other enjoyable character actors, including Frances Bay, Roy Brocksmith, and Mary Carver.
Interestingly, the characters in the movie both embody some of the rustiest Hollywood cliches and depart dramatically from those same cliches. James Atherton is your typical, obsessive, tunnel vision movie scientist/professor, but he's not a villain who wants to save the spiders at the expense of human lives like you would expect from a movie like this. He realizes shit is bad and the spiders have to be wiped out before they wipe out the human race. Dr. Jennings is a Yale graduate, doctor, and wine enthusiast, but he's not an arrogant snob, and he fits in well in the small town. The old family doctor  is a self-important, raging asshole instead of a kindly town patriarch, and Ross and Molly Jennings have an egalitarian marriage, with Molly a resourceful, reasonable person with a life of her own. The filmmakers portray them as a complementary team instead of the usual Hollywood model of a hero and his supportive prop of a wife (with some exceptions later in the film).
That being said, the movie is still an example of Hollywood privileging the upper-class white male experience over all others. There is nothing particularly offensive here, but looking at it through 2015 eyes, you can clearly see what's missing. The fact that the filmmakers don't bother telling you the South American country is Venezuela until halfway through the film is telling. It could be any South American country, and it's full of weird shit that will destroy the small-town American way of life, given a chance. The only black person in the film is a mover, and he's given an uncharacteristically snobbish, patronizing lecture by Dr. Jennings about being careful with a box housing his expensive wine. When a beloved town resident dies at 68 after being bitten by a spider, Dr. Jennings points out that she should have lived at least ten more years because "78 is the average age of life expectancy for a Caucasian woman like her." This was factually correct in 1990, but it just seemed weird that "Caucasian" was specifically mentioned. Every overweight person in this movie is constantly seen shoveling food into his or her mouth (including the mortician, who also gets the obligatory eating of a sandwich during an autopsy scene).  After setting up the Jennings' strong marriage and giving Molly lots to do in the film's opening half, she's largely forgotten by the film's second half. Also, the movie privileges Jeff Daniels overcoming his arachnophobia over the lives of the townspeople. 
Despite these qualms, the movie is skillfully if slickly made, with enjoyable, detailed performances and lots of entertaining handmade spider action. Director Frank Marshall is clearly following the Steven Spielberg model here, though he's not as visually imaginative (and Spielberg's fathers tend to be absent rather than the strong presences they are here). As I mentioned earlier, this was Marshall's first feature-length film as a director (he later directed Alive, Congo, and the Paul Walker/Jason Biggs Alaskan sled-dog movie Eight Below), but he's had a long and extensive career as a major Hollywood producer, with credits including Paper Moon, The Last Waltz, The Driver, The Warriors, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Goonies, Back to the Future, The Color Purple, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Joe Versus the Volcano, Cape Fear, Noises Off..., The Sixth Sense, The Bourne Identity, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He's also producing this year's highly anticipated by me, belated debut of the never-released, 1970s-shot Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. He seems to be one of those rare birds who's more interesting as a producer than as a director, but, despite my misgivings, Arachnophobia, while hardly essential or canonical, still holds up as a solid, fun hour and forty minutes of Hollywood entertainment.
Holy shit, I almost forgot. The closing credits music is a song sung from the spider's perspective by Jimmy Buffett, and yes, it's terrible.

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