‘Arachnophobia’ is a Blockbuster That Appreciates the Subtle and the Miniscule

Arachnophobia (Hollywood Pictures, 1990) on Amazon Prime

Before there were snakes on a plane, there were spiders in backpacks, and behind toilet seats, under sinks, and even hitching rides in coffins. That’s how they ended up in the small town of Canaima in ARACHNOPHOBIA, a 1990 summer blockbuster that’s currently getting the remake treatment with director Christopher Landon (of Paranormal Activity fame) and James Wan (of The Conjuring and DCU) producing. We’re in a considerably different world than when the original first appeared.

Looking back, it’s hard to not rewatch and see that the movie – the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Frank Marshall – offered a foretaste of what the next decade of filmmaking would have to offer, as we see a young photographer traveling by helicopter above the Andes Mountains and the lush rainforests of Venezuela on a rather mysterious expedition. Even with his fever, Jerry Manley is taken by the exotic landscape – not even noticing the deadly 24-hour-ant that the eccentric entomologist who hired him brushes off his shoulder, with the warning that they kill if their numbers are large enough. 

There’s no real conspiracy here – just a foray into lands unknown. Atherton is no mad doctor – and their helicopter flight to an untouched, geographically isolated mountain – the furthest you could get away with a hidden prehistoric world subplot in the 1990s – is a moment when everyday football-loving Manley finally shares in his sense of wonderment. Watching the mist-laden landscape, Manley can’t help but ask, “Any man-eating dinosaurs?”  Well, no. That’s not for a few more summers. 

Manley is still spellbound by this place when they reach the mountain peak and thousands of butterfly specimens tumble from the trees. They’re not dead – just tired from the plumes of smoke blown up by Atherton’s research team to bring them out, and the colorful cascade involves millions of years of evolution. Unfortunately, it’s not all pretty things falling from this tree – one is a prehistoric spider the size of a baseball glove, with venom that could kill creatures a whole lot bigger. It’s going to be Jerry Manley’s end – the thing that follows him back home to California in a box.

We get one genuinely dark moment as the town mortician opens the box to find Manley’s dessicated corpse and the spider escapes – and then the film largely finds its own course as a suspense-comedy – a subgenre that the producers spent weeks trying to come up with a name for. Rather than try to jolt the audience into one shock after another, as contemporary movies often do today – and one reason I’m not so sure about the remake – it gets the audience to enjoy each scare. The spiders – 200 Avondale spiders used altogether in the film – are treated like actors – getting impressive closeups as they land and crawl over surfaces where they’re not wanted and we watch their human costars put fingers and feet exactly where they shouldn’t. 

The hero of the film is just a small-town doctor who’s something of a fish out of water. He and his wife just bought their dream house, moved their kids out of the city and it’s been invaded by the type of creature he’s always dreaded. This can only end in a final showdown between him and the queen spider in his crumbling wine cellar – a metaphorical tearing down of all those yuppie dreams of the 80s. 

He overcomes his fears by killing the queen who refuses to die, but it’s the aspiring tough guy exterminator played by John Goodman who takes all the credit for wiping out the infestation at the end before he and his wife return to San Francisco and a familiar crowded apartment. An earthquake is rumbling in the background – something that would be a blockbuster event – particularly since this decade would later give rise to a wave of disaster movies, but this movie is content with just the anticipation of what’s to come. 


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