This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Pukapa’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Rewatching and reviewing some of my favorite horror films.
"Yeah, that's right... I'm bad."
The real spider movie that all others should - but sadly never have - take an example to. Director Frank Marshall is more known as a producer and co-founder of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. So even though Arachnophobia came out in 1990, it has 80's Spielberg written all over it and is one of those family friendly horror movies. If you like kid-friendly horror films like Beetlejuice, Gremlins, Poltergeist, The Gate or High School Musical, this film is for you.
The plot is fairly simple, as monster movies actually should be. It opens on a rainsforest expedition in Venezuela, where your everyday British entymologist Doctor Atherton discovers a new species of spider. Also present is this fish-out-of-water photographer from the America, who doesn't like these spiders one bit. Of course he gets bitten by one of those; we all know he's basically walking spider chow. He instantly dies and is transported back, taking the sneaky creature with him, to the little town of Canaima - accompanied with a cheery carrying-a-fresh-cadaver-back-to-home score.
We then meet our main character Ross Jennins, played by Jeff Daniels. He's a doctor who's down on his luck; his move from San Francisco to this quiet little town to become the new doctor there isn't working out very well, mainly because the old docter who ensured him he would be retiring changed his mind. It doesn't help that the old fart badmouths Jennings on every opportunity he gets. "Dr. Jennings examined him last.". People around town even start calling him doctor Death lol.
It soons becomes apparent that hundreds of deadly spiders are on the loose, as the spider from Venezuela mated with a common housespider, creating a deadly swarm a hybrid-toxic offsprings (still a better love story than Twilight). This is more bad news for Jennings as he suffers from - what else? - severe arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. Doctor Athertan and his assistant are called in and come to realize that to get the situation under control, the head spider - which they call the General must be destroyed. So it's essentially the plot of a vampire movie.
The first and second act are pretty brilliant. There's a great Spielbergian hook in Venezuela and the characters are interesting enough to be invested in their story. As a result each death comes as quite a shock.
The film understands that monsters, in this case spiders, lack any personality, because they're animals without visible emotions (You hear that Lion King remake?), so they make up for it with colourfull victims. And even though some of them are a little goofy, it's never over-the-top. Jeff Daniels plays a rational down-to-earth guy, who just happens to have a weakness against spiders, and therefore is a good character for the audience to identify with.
In a typical 80's fashion, the movie kind of plays out as a thriller-comedy. Marshall at one point even referred to it as a Thrillomedy. (That just genius. What next? A Crimedy? Historror Epic? Romience fiction? Coming of Angster?
Arachnophobia has some cheesy moments but manages to keep a healthy balance between those and the horror stuff. A great portion of the comedy comes from John Goodman's character, who absolutely steals the show in every scene he's in, playing a wisecracking know-it-all exterminator. "A web would indicate an arachnoid presence". Despite the comedy the suspense is omni-present, as spider-danger lurks behind every corner.
There are loads of Hitchockian shots, where the audience knows where the little creeps are, but the characters on screen are none the wiser. There's even an obvious wink to Psycho with a remeniscent shower scene.
The key word that makes this film so great is EFFORT. Spiders may be an obvious subject for horror movies, but as a lot of other spider movies point out, it takes a great deal of ingenuity, skill and effort to pull it off. Making the spiders look real, and therefore making the audience believe they are really there is essential to make an effective spider horror movie.
Arachnophobia doesn't rely on CGI, puppets or props but on REAL SPIDERS. Professional entymologist Steven R. Kutcher was called in, who apparently is the go to guy for bug and spider related wrangling in Hollywood. He has worked on a great number of films, including Exorcist II: Ecorcistier, Jurassic Park, Meet the Applegates and I guess most Adam Sandler movies. Kutcher also makes paintings by dipping the little insect's legs in paint and letting them walk on a canvas, which is totally not fucking creepy at all.
His expertise in this film makes it stand out from other monster movies when it comes to realism. When the house is crawling with hundreds of real spiders on set, your skin will itch like a meth addict waiting for his next hit. So if you ever want to make a good horror movie just take some spiders from your backyard and put them in your movie.
They may be small, but what is really scarier? One big fake horrendous terrible looking vomit inducing CGI abomination? (shoutout to films like Spiders and Eight Legged Freaks) Or hundreds of tiny real spiders?
Using real spiders is one thing, but Frank Marshall went the extra mile in the way the film is shot. Most scenes with the spiders are filmed in one shot, often panning from the actor to the actual spiders. This way, we get to see where the creature is lurking exactly in relation to the people on set. By doing it in one single image, instead of editing, it never deminishes the tension. It's a great technique, as it shows that the spiders are very close to the actors on set and you feel bad for the characters and the actors playing them at the same time.
This gives the spider scenes the extra suspense you need, on an almost subconscious level. It's similar to elaborate stunts like in Buster Keaton films. The comical effect Keaton is going for works much better because you feel that he is in real danger.
Unfortunately there are a few things that really piss me off. There is this one scene that is extremely dumb: Doctor Ratatha goes to a barn and tries to get the head spider to attack him because... I have no idea. Hey idiot, You're supposed to be the expert in this movie?
Also the climax is entirely too long. You can play all the Return of the King endings in that time, at one point you just don't care anymore. I also have some major beef with the very last scene, which I won't spoil, don't worry. But it feels kind of weak as a resolution or for the obligatory final little joke.
Imagine How to Train Your Dragon ending with ... and then Toothless was bought by a zoo and Hiccup went into accounting.
But these are just nitpix, actually. The movie works really well on any other level. If you haven't seen Arachnophobia yet, do yourself a favor and give it a watch. It's a great little monster movie and by far the best spider-related film to ever grace the silver screen.