ARACHNOPHOBIA And The Secret Of Horror-Comedy

Frank Marshall’s 1990 spider movie strikes a surprisingly deft tonal balance.

Frank Marshall has directed four movies, and Arachnophobia is the first and arguably best of them (although I know Congo fans who would disagree). Now, Arachnophobia is getting remade by producer James Wan, and that demands a revisit of the original. In my case, it’s a fresh visit: a moderate arachnophobe myself, I always hovered over the film in video stores only to shy away. Now, though, with a work-related reason to take the plunge, I discovered a borderline unsung classic.

Released in 1990, Arachnophobia rode in on the coattails of a string of Marshall-produced classics: Poltergeist; the Indiana Jones, Gremlins, and Back to the Future films; The Colour Purple; and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to name a few. The overall vibe is is of a slightly off-brand Spielberg (who executive-produced, and has plenty of shared credits with Marshall, editor Michael Kahn, and production designer Jim Bissell). Following a family recently moved from San Francisco to sleepy and spider-infested Canaima, California, it's as if Spielberg remade Jaws, with spiders, leaning into the funnies.

Arachnophobia occupies a curious place in the horror-comedy pantheon. It’s not a wacky cartoon like Gremlins, splatstick like Braindead, or parody like Young Frankenstein (films which are all stone-cold classics). Instead, it's miraculously both genuinely scary and genuinely funny, in subtler ways than most of the subgenre. Unsurprisingly, Disney struggled to market it, using the clunky term “thrill-omedy” in an attempt to carve out a niche. While the film made $53 million domestically - the equivalent of $115 million today - it failed to stick in the public's minds, except perhaps for those of arachnophobes themselves.

The spiders of Arachnophobia are scary as hell, stemming largely from how ordinary they are. Though they’re created by the reproductive process of a fictitious South American spider, the film's killer spiders aren’t giant, acid-spitting monsters. They’re more or less everyday household spiders - specifically, Avondale spiders from New Zealand, used by the production for their frightening appearance and harmlessness to humans. You could encounter one of these guys at any time, at any place.

The kill sequences, in which residents of Canaima are offed by the venomous arachnids, follow that line of thinking. Though well-constructed, these moments aren’t over-the-top theatrical setpieces, with the exception of the explosive basement finale. The spider bites come out of relatable situations: spiders in your shoe, in your bed, in your cereal box, hanging from a lampshade. As a result, they inspire a much more primal terror and revulsion than a tidal wave of CGI tarantulas ever could.

Arachnophobia’s also pretty funny. In place of gags, it has quietly amusing characters and a storyline that plays off its setting against its protagonist. Jeff Daniels’ Ross Jennings arrives in Canaima to take over as the town’s doctor, only to have the outgoing physician promptly cancel his retirement. From there, the film makes comic hay out of Jennings’ uncomfortable place in his new community. Each subsequent death happens in such a way that the townsfolk can pin it on Jennings, to the extent that he gets labeled “Doctor Death.” The script is remarkably tight, full of satisfying setups and payoffs, and supporting characters that wouldn't feel out of place in a Coen Brothers movie.

The trick to Arachnophobia’s tonal success lies in its rooting both its horror and its comedy in character. It’s not just a matter of delivering both laughs and scares, but in drawing them naturally from the characters who push the story along. That's exhibited most clearly and effectively in Jennings’ arachnophobia. The film pours substantial screen time into setting up his fear of spiders, whether in backstory or in performance. Knowing how afraid Jennings is of spiders, we get laughs out of his terror when it's all over nothing, but we also feel his terror more acutely when the danger is real. His paralysis in the climactic showdown against the “General Spider” is as palpable to us as our elation when he overcomes it. It helps that Daniels is low-key terrific in the role, too, making light of his fear one moment then being gripped by it the next.

The only points at which the movie’s tone really clangs are the handful of appearances by John Goodman’s exterminator Delbert McClintock. Delbert is a broad comic relief character in a film that's otherwise subtler than that. Sporting silly glasses and an even sillier musical theme, Delbert feels out of place in a film in Arachnophobia. It feels odd to say a character is too funny, but perhaps Delbert’s problem is that he’s the wrong brand of funny. Much of that can be laid at Marshall’s feet: the script doesn’t really cast Delbert in that ridiculous a light, and it’s likely that Goodman came to set with the assumption he was meant to add levity to an otherwise scary movie. A more assertively thoughtful director would have toned down Goodman’s wardrobe and performance to match his surroundings. 

When it’s firing on all cylinders, Arachnophobia is close to a note-perfect horror-comedy. But its denouement fails to connect - a fact which also helps explain the film's lack of cultural staying power. The punchline - that the Jennings family moves back to San Francisco only to have their house rocked by earthquakes - isn't great. It doesn’t tie into character or story, beyond a vague nod to irrational fears, and more importantly, it’s got nothing to do with spiders. This movie cries out for a stinger of an ending, and instead, it gets a limp, unfunny nudge. It’s followed up by Jimmy Buffett’s closing credits song, “Don’t Bug Me,” which takes the audience on a jarring left turn into Margaritaville. The resultant takeaway is a weird, halfhearted ending which doesn't reflect the film that precedes it.

Will the remake of Arachnophobia manage to maintain that fine balance of horror and comedy? CGI spiders (which will almost certainly appear in the film) won’t have the authentic creepy-crawliness of the original’s genuine arachnids, but they're not even the biggest potential problem. It's all about tone. If the filmmakers keep the scale small - focus on character, build tension from relatable scenarios, refrain from adding scorpions just because they’re arachnids too - maybe they’ll succeed.

After all, this is Arachnophobia, not Big Ass Spider. It’s not a monster movie; it’s about psychology. You're on, James Wan.

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