Arachnophobia (1990) **
Nostalgia can make people do the damnedest things. You might think, for example, that 1990 was much too late for anybody to bother making a loving semi-spoof of the killer bee movies of the 1970’s, for while those films must have been reasonably popular at the time, none of them were any good, and it can hardly be said that they enjoyed an august reputation a decade and more after the fact. And yet here Arachnophobia is, with names no less weighty than Frank Marshall and Stephen Spielberg attached to it, and with a Disney subsidiary’s logo before the opening credits. What could make a respectable bunch like that decide that the world really needed a new variation on The Savage Bees is well beyond me. Similarly far beyond me is why, having settled upon such a rash course of action, the makers of Arachnophobia went so far out of their way to reproduce the very worst feature of the old deadly bug movies, their eagerness to subordinate the bugs themselves to top-heavy drama about the uninteresting personal lives of their uninteresting characters.
The most noticeable difference between Arachnophobia and the majority of yesteryear’s killer bug movies concerns the species which constitutes the threat. The killer bee having proven a miserable disappointment as an apocalyptic ecological menace by 1990, it was necessary to find some other arthropod to take over the job. And as the movie’s title strongly implies, screenwriter Ron Jakoby has selected spiders to be the menace du jour. Photographer Dick Manley (Warren Rice) doesn’t realize this when he accepts the job, but the reason biologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands, from Warlock and Boxing Helena) has arranged to fly him out to Venezuela is that he needs someone to help document one of those lost worlds that used to be so popular back in the day, a lost world which he believes specifically to be home to all sorts of undiscovered species of exotic spiders. Atherton is not wrong. In fact, it turns out that the top predator in his unexplored valley is a spider that not only possesses venom powerful enough to fell practically anything, but that also organizes itself into the sort of exceedingly complex societies one encounters among ants, bees, and termites. (One of the things that bothers me about Arachnophobia is that nobody makes any serious effort to convey just how surpassingly strange its fictional spider species is. Leaving aside its patently impossible ability to breed with spiders of other species and assimilate them to its own characteristics, it exhibits a range of qualities which are not just odd, but completely unheard of. So far as is known, there is not nor has there ever been a fully eusocial arachnid on Earth; a spider that formed colonies of congenitally asexual workers devoted to the service of a single breeding pair would be as shocking a discovery as a bird with gills or a fish with mammary glands. Male-dominated eusociality, meanwhile, is unknown even among insects— termite colonies do have kings, but the queen is still the paramount concern of the hive. Yet the script and the actors between them treat the Venezuelan spiders as nothing more than a bit peculiar. Ah, screw it— back to the movie…) Naturally, while Atherton and his assistants are running around the valley collecting specimens, one of the male reproductives sneaks into Manley’s luggage, leading to the photographer getting all kinds of killed the moment he beds down to recuperate from the fever he’s been struggling with ever since he arrived in the tropics.
The king spider hitches a ride in Manley’s coffin when Atherton ships it back to the States, and it manages to evade discovery even after hometown mortician Irv Kendall (Roy Brocksmith, of Killer Fish and Total Recall) opens up the box to go to work on the dead man. The shockingly desiccated condition of the corpse probably goes some way toward explaining how Irv’s attention wasn’t instantly drawn to the monster spider sharing the coffin with it. In any case, the spider sneaks away, and after a succession of adventures and misadventures which would have made a perfectly serviceable (if also rather bent) children’s movie, it selects a mate from among the locals and sets up shop in a barn on the outskirts of town. That barn and the house with which it is associated have just been bought by Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his wife, Molly (Harley Kane Kozak, from Dark Planet and The House on Sorority Row), who have relocated from San Francisco in the interest of finding someplace less hectic in which to raise their kids, Tommy (Garette Patrick Ratliff) and Shelley (Marlene Katz). And just in case you thought the movie’s title needed a slightly stronger justification than what we have seen thus far, Dr. Jennings has harbored a morbid terror of spiders since he was about two years old.
But in the true spirit of Arachnophobia’s 70’s ancestors, the killer spider living in the barn is going to be the least of Jennings’s problems for the moment. His most immediate worry is Dr. Sam Metcalf (The Bad Seed’s Henry Jones), who was supposed to be retiring to make way for the new sawbones in town, but who has just decided he wants to stick around after all. That’s going to make patients very hard to find, and on the day Jennings opens for business, the only person to drop in for an examination is retired schoolteacher Margaret Hollins (Dream No Evil’s Mary Carver), who never liked Metcalf anyway. Luckily, Margaret takes it upon herself to raise Ross’s profile by throwing a party in honor of his arrival and inviting pretty much the whole town, and while performing physicals on the high school gym class overseen by Coach Henry Beachwood (Peter Jason, from Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars) may not be his ideal work, it does promise to pay at least a couple of the bills. Then the curious deaths begin. Margaret Hollins is the first to go, and the circumstances of her demise threaten to put Jennings in extremely hot water. The immediate cause of death looks to have been a sudden heart attack, and Jennings did just take Margaret off of the blood pressure pills which Metcalf had prescribed for her. Metcalf wants to begin malpractice proceedings against his new rival, and Sheriff Lloyd Parsons (Stuart Pankin, of Hanger 18 and Fatal Attraction) is visibly itching to arrest Ross on manslaughter charges. The identical out-of-nowhere death of one of Beachwood’s football players is a bit more difficult to pass off as run-of-the-mill malpractice, however, as is the unexpected fate of Dr. Metcalf, who drops dead in his bedroom one evening— after all, teenage jocks don’t generally have heart attacks, and Metcalf had never so much as set foot in Ross’s office. Parsons fights it with all his might, but coroner Milton Briggs (Unbreakable’s James Handy) supports Jennings when he calls not only for an autopsy on Metcalf, but for the exhumation of Margaret and the dead teen as well. Jennings, you see, happened to notice the pair of ghastly-looking puncture wounds— rather like a spider bite— on the dead doctor’s toe, and Mrs. Metcalf did mention that something bit her husband right before he keeled over. Sure enough, the first autopsy reveals an unidentified toxin in Metcalf’s system.
Operating on the theory that his new town is facing a plague of extraordinarily venomous spiders, Jennings gets in touch with a man whom a bit of research identifies as one of the world’s leading authorities on the creatures; obviously, I’m talking about James Atherton. Atherton is very busy, and he considers it likely that Metcalf’s spider bite was merely a coincidence, so he initially sends his assistant, Chris Collins (Brian McNamara), rather than coming out himself. But then two things convince Atherton that the situation merits a more hands-on approach. First, the same poison that killed Metcalf turns up in both of the subsequent autopsies, and Collins confirms that the strange puncture wounds which Jennings shows him on all three victims are indeed spider bites. Second, Atherton makes the connection between Jennings’s town and the address to which he shipped Dick Manley’s body not so long ago. Atherton arrives just as the spider situation starts to get really out of hand, and he joins forces with Jennings and comic relief white trash exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) to stop the invasion he himself inadvertently unleashed.
Actually, the phrase “comic relief white trash exterminator” goes a long way toward explaining why Arachnophobia never gets within visual range of fulfilling its potential. Simply put, this is a film with serious identity issues, and its comedy, soap opera, and monster movie elements fail to gel except for a few minutes at a time. Nobody who doesn’t share Ross Jennings’s horror of spiders is likely to be convinced of the threat posed by the highly improbable arachnids, and the over-the-top action movie climax is a terrible miscalculation. Goodman is painfully unfunny in most of his scenes, and while the rest of the cast is quite good (apart, that is, from Julian Sands, who wouldn’t know good if it took down its pants and slapped him upside the head with nine inches of limp dick), they suffer from being quite good primarily with material that it is next to impossible to care about. What Arachnophobia has in its favor falls mainly under the heading of technical competence. It’s well shot, well funded, and edited with sufficient verve to save it from being as dull as it deserves to be. The use of real spiders whenever possible was a wise choice, and will probably give the movie a bit of kick in the eyes of anybody who finds things with more than four legs unnerving. The trouble, of course, is that it was precisely their lack of technical competence from which the bug movies of the 70’s drew most of their generally limited appeal, and Arachnophobia might have done better to suck without shame instead.