The Tomb of Terror – Arachnophobia (1990)
First time director Frank Marshall (Congo) was coming off of a successful decade as Steven Spielberg’s go-to producer for all the 80s classics he was involved with. Spielberg returned the favor and produced this film, which, like his 80s horror productions (Gremlins, Poltergeist), is infused with quite a bit of humor. Although this film is very funny, the best bits come from the witty dialogue, as it’s more concerned with scaring the audience. The suspense scenes are the best part of the film; nearly every one is pitch perfect. Gore isn’t much of a factor, this being a PG-13 production. It should be noted that this film is one of the best examples of why PG-13 horror doesn’t instantly equal a lame movie. Marshall even manages to make the false scares exciting by not dishing out the usual suspects such as a cat jumping into the frame or a sudden hand on the shoulder. The only time the direction really fails is when the spiders are anthropomorphized to further the plot. This includes the original spider’s journey from the jungle to the Jenningses’ barn and the ridiculous spider love scene. These scenes are played very straight, making them all the more eyerolling.
The cast does a uniformly good job. There isn’t a weak link in the bunch. Jeff Daniels has an easygoing attitude onscreen that makes him hard to dislike. Here he also ably portrays the drama of a serious arachnophobe caught in this nightmarish situation. Also making an impression is Julian Sands. His performance as the spider expert is maybe the most subdued of his career. The one possible question mark in the cast is John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) as Delbert the exterminator. I’m a big fan of Goodman and think Delbert is a fun character, but the filmmakers try too hard to make him the “funny guy.” At times the way the character acts and his dialogue make it seem as if he’s flown in from a different film. The silly theme music that accompanies him in every scene doesn’t help matters any.
Ever since the film Tarantula came out in 1955, audiences have been assaulted with images of giant spiders on film. What’s great about Arachnophobia is that it realizes that these animals are scarier in their natural state than when they’re as big as a house. And while it might not be the best killer spider movie around (that would be 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders), it is the most fun. In an age where so many films are referred to as roller coasters, this one actually lives up to the title. In the dark era that was 90s horror, Arachnophobia is a shining light.
Final Grade: B+
Arachnophobia was released on DVD in 1999 by Hollywood Pictures. It features a non-anamorphic transfer and paltry bonus material. First up is a three-minute featurette that is really just an extended trailer for the film with a couple of interview snippets inserted throughout. The only other thing you get is the actual trailer. One thing that stuck out to me in the featurette and trailer is that the film is referred to as a “thrillodemy.” I can only hope that whoever came up with that marketing hook was promptly fired. Hopefully one day this title will get the release it deserves with a remastered transfer and worthwhile bonus features.