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Looking Back: Arachnophobia (1990)

The only thing about “Arachnophobia” that never caught on was the studio’s insistence that was a “Thrill-omedy.” That odd, unappealing juxtaposition of two words were unnecessary (seriously, we have the time to call it a Comic Thriller). Being the first Disney film to be distributed by their newly minted studio and production label, Hollywood Pictures, the Mouse House may not have sold us on the coinage of a “thrill-omedy” but they sure got us to remember what Arachnophbia is.

Considering the mouthful of a title was rumored to be “Itsy Bitsy” at one point and was possibly undergoing a change, in fear of no one remembering what it was called, the title of the film, defining the fear of spiders, has stuck as a part of the popular lexicon. We all know what Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders, that its main character, played by Jeff Daniels is afraid of spiders and, as the movie progresses, we too experience a mild and possibly curable case of Arachnophobia.

Spiders are really kind of cute, if you think about it. I’ve been told holding a tarantula is like having a ball of cotton in the palm of your hand. I guess I’ll have to take their word for it. Spiders are necessary on the food chain, taking out the surplus of bugs and, really, the gossamers they create are a thing of beauty. Then again, there’s the contrast to that, which “Arachnophobia” teased us on the poster: “Eight Legs, Two Fangs and an Attitude.” When you think about it that way, that these hairy, multi-eyed creatures who have, eww, more legs than we do, are everywhere…its really creepy. So is “Arachnophobia,” which holds up well today.

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After one of those obligatory jungle openings, where we witness how an intelligent, large and mean spider hijacks a coffin and makes its way to America, the movie opens in a small town. It doesn’t even matter where the town is, only that we know it isn’t San Francisco, where Daniel’s doctor and his family have moved away from. They’re city slickers, in the midst of kind-hearted yokels, some of whom have a distrust of an educated “city slicker.” These early scenes had me worried, as the tone is initially so lightweight, I wondered if the terror this movie once instilled in me was due to my being 13 when it came out.

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As gentle as the early, character-establishing scenes of “Arachnophobia” are, they give way to what director Frank Marshall (whose best movie this is) and executive producer Steven Spielberg are aiming for: making a full-throttle, B-movie scare-athon. Once we get to the moment where a spider trickles down a girl taking a shower and we see (in PG-13 fashion) the insect slide between the cleavage of a teen girl, a playfully nasty, drive-in movie approach takes over. While the movie is never mean-spirited, gory and overly offensive, it becomes like its central monster: out in the open, unleashed and ready to attack.

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Daniels is good at making us feel his character’s crippling fear of arachnids and its impossible not to enjoy John Goodman’s extended cameo as a braggadocios bug exterminator. Really, though, the humans are spider food. The real stars are the eight legged critters. Daniels even refers to them as Eight Legged Freaks at one point, though this is a scarier, better movie than the 2002, David Arquette-starring giant spider monster mash. I’m not sure if “Arachnophobia” is better than the William Shatner-starring “Kingdom of Spiders,” but I’m still giving this one the edge. The go-for-broke finale, with Daniels facing an army of arachnids with a flame thrower, plays like the ending of “Aliens” (with a sex change). The many scenes of spiders sneaking into the homes and private spaces of local townspeople still has the power to fully creep anyone out. For a Disney movie, “Arachnophobia” sure scared a lot of people. As the first and one of the best films ever released from Hollywood Pictures, it still plays like a family movie with a distinct edge and a concentration on generating fright. Yet, despite how funny and thrilling the movie still is, you still can’t get me to call it a “thrill-omedy.”

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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