Thursday, October 02, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 1 - Arachnophobia

#10 (Tie) - 4 Votes

A quintessential '90s memory: I'm six years old, at my afterschool gymnastics class, and I can't wait for it to be over so we can pick up the copy of Arachnophobia reserved for me at the local video store on the way home. I'd missed it when it was released in theaters the previous summer, a famously crowded one that also saw the releases of movies like Dick Tracy, Total Recall and Gremlins 2. Arachnophobia did pretty well at the box office; like many of the movies released in the '80s and '90s by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, it was a solid double, delivering on the trailer's promise of a "Thrill-omedy" without reaching for greatness. The Amblin productions mostly took place in suburban worlds familiar from E.T., mixing sunny optimism and characters out of a Frank Capra movie with perverse but safely PG-13 scares. Filmmakers like Joe Dante or Martin Scorsese might shake up the Amblin formula with Gremlins and Cape Fear, respectively, but as dark as those movies got, they still took place in towns where everyone goes to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Problem Child on a Saturday night. Arachnophobia is very much an Amblin production, and probably the tamest movie on this list - while it's full of jump scares, the thrills are mostly bloodless, and all of the main characters survive. On the other hand, it did prompt Disney to create the "Hollywood Pictures" division, as PG-13 Thrill-omedies were apparently too edgy to bear the Magic Kingdom logo.

I liked Arachnophobia at the time, but even as a kid, it was never one of my favorites. This is mostly because of the main characters, Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family, who move from San Francisco to a farmhouse in northern California around the same time that an extremely poisonous spider arrives in town from South America via the coffin of his last victim. From the beginning, Jennings whines about country life and the repairs he'll need to do on his expensive, gorgeous new house. I have difficulty enjoying movies (Father of the Bride and Amblin production The Money Pit come to mind) where the characters whine about how much money they have to spend for much of the running time. It's stressful, and it undercuts any sense of escapist fun. The film validates the whiny Yuppie family's point of view - the townspeople are mostly bumpkins and hostile to the city folk, and an elderly doctor who, for some reason, denies all evidence that his patients are being killed off by spiders. This is unusual for an Amblin production; earlier that same summer, for instance, Gremlins 2 poked fun at New York and ended with billionaire Daniel Clamp realizing the virtues of (and planning to co-opt) small town life. By contrast, Arachnophobia is smugly explicit in its message that city life is better than living anywhere else, and I rolled my eyes at it even as a kid. Also, Dr. Jennings won't shut up about his wine cellar for the whole movie.

The film's brightest spot is John Goodman as an oafish exterminator - there's not much of a character there, but he makes the most of it and steals every scene he's in (I love that he plays it like he knows he's the smartest guy in the room). Also, it perks up in the second half with the arrival of another Amblin trope, the ragtag gang of nerdy, "alternative" scientists (see also: Poltergeist, Twister). And for what it's worth, I'm not afraid of spiders, and anyone I know who is will name this one as a classic, which might explain its relatively strong showing on this poll. When director Frank Marshall (Spielberg's frequent producer) focuses on delivering spider-centric scares and gags, Arachnophobia works great. I'm particularly fond of the spider-in-the-shower scene, with the wonderfully crass sight gag of a spider crawling between a woman's breasts. I could have sworn that this scene was heavily featured in the movie's ad campaign, but it only takes up a few seconds in the trailer, so it could just be that I was a gross kid.

U.S. Release Date: July 20, 1990 (Also released that day: Navy Seals, The Freshman)

What critics said at the time:

"You wouldn't think spiders would be good visual elements for a movie. Remember that awful horror movie 'The Swarm,' in which killer bees completely failed to make an impression? But the spiders in 'Arachnophobia' are wonderfully photogenic, partly because the director, Frank Marshall, is good at placing them in the foreground, shooting them in closeup and allowing their shadows to cast alarming images when the characters aren't looking. He's also clever at establishing where the spiders are and then allowing us to cringe as the people in the movie do exactly the wrong thing. The toilet-seat scene is a splendid case in point." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Most of 'Arachnophobia' is playful rather than macabre, with Mr. Marshall content to let a lethal spider creep into someone's popcorn bowl or football helmet and leave the rest to his audience's imagination. This relatively light touch rescues the film from the realm of pure horror, and places it more centrally in the category of humorously scary films an audience loves to hate. The model is ''Jaws,' and since more of his viewers are apt to be afraid of creepy-crawly household pests than of deep sea swimming, Mr. Marshall even has a running start." - Janet Maslin, New York Times

No comments: