Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 29, 2012)
As a producer, Frank Marshall worked on massive hits such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As a director, however, things haven’t gone so well.
With his pedigree, Marshall got the reins to direct three fairly big-budget “tent pole”-style films between 1990 and 1995. All three disappointed at the box office and failed to reach “hit” status. None of them genuinely bombed, though 1993’s Alive made little financial impact.
Nonetheless, all three seemed poised for bigger success than they achieved. 1995’s Congo was the most notable disappointment. It got massive promotion and a prime June release date but only brought in a mediocre $75 million. Again, that wasn’t bad, but it definitely didn’t live up to expectations.
(Ironically, Marshall’s biggest hit came when he went with lowered goals. He took off 11 years from directing and earned a left-field success with 2006’s “under the radar” family adventure Eight Below.)
Although no one went into 1990’s Arachnophobia with the same elevated expectations that greeted Congo, it still had high hopes attached and ended up as a bit of a disappointment. I remember liking it a lot, however, so I decided to give it another look after many years.
At the start, we go to Venezuela where Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) leads an expedition to a remote location to examine the insect wildlife. They discover various forms of never-seen species – including giant, aggressive spiders. One of these creatures bites photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor). This doesn’t end well for the shutterbug, as he dies within seconds of the wound.
Manley hails from small town Canaima, California, and his coffin heads there for his burial. The spider finds his way into the box and hitches a ride back to the US, where it escapes at the funeral home. A bird grabs it but drops it when the spider chomps/kills it.
This leaves the creature near the barn owned by Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak). They just moved to Canaima to get away from the big city; Jennings plans to take over as the local doctor from retiring physician Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones).
Two problems emerge. First, Metcalf reneges on his promise and decides not to retire, a choice that leaves Ross bereft of clients – and income.
Second, the Venezuelan spider takes up residence in the Jennings’ barn and starts to dominate the local ecosystem when it reproduces. Bites, deaths and mayhem ensue.
To a degree, I suspect that the impact Arachnophobia has on a viewer will relate to that person’s feelings about spiders. If they don’t faze you, the film will probably pack much less punch than if they give you the willies.
I’m firmly in the latter camp, so that affects the film’s impact on me. It takes little related to spiders to creep me out, so the antics of Arachnophobia more than do the trick. I get a nearly constant state of the heebie-jeebies whenever I watch this ick-fest.
Leaving my personal feelings toward spiders out of it, I still think Arachnophobia provides a pretty good little comedy/horror flick. At times it can seem somewhat slow, but I think its pacing works overall. Marshall builds the arachnid threat gradually and creeps toward a pretty wild finale. A more manic sense of pacing probably would’ve defanged that finish, so even though the mild meandering frustrates at times, it pays off well in the end.
Although it does take a while to get to the action, Marshall builds the tension in a satisfying manner, and he uses the time to let us become acquainted with the characters. Though most of them remain little more than archetypes, this element still adds some warmth and depth to the proceedings; at least it means the spider victims are usually people we know and not just anonymous fang fodder.
Daniels helps ground the piece as the lead. He offers the right mix of comedy and drama and he turns into a believable sort of action hero when necessary. The other actors give the movie oomph as well, though Kozak seems somewhat lost in the shuffle; she just doesn’t have much to do as the doctor’s wife.
Honestly, if I want to find a reason to complain about Arachnophobia, all I can do is say that while I enjoy it, I always feel like something’s missing. This is the kind of film that delivers a solid “B” or “B+” experience but that could’ve been an “A” in someone else’s hands – someone like Marshall mentor/Arachnophobia executive producer Steven Spielberg.
Much of the time, this feels like a Spielberg film. It seems like the kind of light action flick he’d attempt, and its concentration on family life fits his MO in this era. You get the impression Spielberg liked the script but didn’t have the time to do it himself so he tossed the project to his old pal Marshall.
And that’s fine – again, I like the result. I simply can’t help but think that Arachnophobia lacks a certain something. Still, it’s a fun creepfest that fires on most cylinders.