The Movies Made Me Do It: Confessions Of A Film Actor (Issue #2)
ARACHNOPHOBIA, 1990, PG-13 — Who wasn’t afraid of spiders growing up? Or still are? Did you bump into an enormous web in your backyard when you were six? Five? Were you in bed one night, almost asleep, and felt a tickle run across your face, only to flip on the light, check your surroundings, then see one of several legs dip out of sight at your bed corner? Maybe you were lucky. I can recall at least a dozen of these incidents between birth and my teens when I nearly had a heart attack.
This is probably the king of all spider/bug movies ever made, with a house literally covered with venomous, eight-legged freaks at the climax. It even gets a little Rambo-like in its final moments with a blowtorch-wielding hero trapped in a basement full of endless pipes, dark corners, and a lot of Chateau Margaux. The next time you travel to South America on a entomology expedition with Julian Sands — plot spoiler, see pic above — make sure to check your backpack for any stowaways.
I actually remember reading a comic book adaptation of this movie before seeing it. All the colorful, intense cartoon stills from the film — maybe the film’s original storyboard — were alternately haunting and exciting. The idea that spiders could bite and kill you wasn’t anything new — nerd alert: see the glorious William Shatner in Kingdom of the Spiders — but this movie got so close to the creepy-crawlers that you could actually see their eyeballs gazing out, ready to strike their next victims. Scary.
And it has a young Jeff Daniels, the easy-going, dependable everyman who plays his role to boot as the friendly, spider-hating dad/hero doctor. He and his family have just moved from the big city to a small, rural town, a place where the deadly spider also ends up, and a place where no one listens to you, even after several citizens have suffered the same cause of death, lol. Speaking of which, some of the exchanges in this film are pretty funny. One victim, after getting bit, gasps, “Spider?…feels like a damn cougar!” Another cute moment: after the hero doctor’s wife confronts him about his arachnophobia, he retorts: “It’s not irrational…”
Being scared is fun, right? Especially when you know it’s just a movie and the thrills are clearly designed to get a reaction out of you. The shocks still hold up and the story progression is a great example of a slow burn pandemic. I saw it on video with two of my best friends. I think it had already been out for a year, but my parents were ultra selective about renting horror films. The sad fact that I was caught one night watching Poltergeist — unsupervised — cost me a fortune of allowance money and double duty yard work. I actually didn’t see an R-rated film till I turned ten. It was Halloween. That’s another article.
So why Arachnophobia? What’s the inspiration?
I loved, loved, loved horror films as a kid. It was the most primal of genres for me, creating instant gratification from the thrills, chills and spills. Part of the fun too with disaster films are the smorgasbord of characters to be demolished or picked off. Who lives? Who dies? And if I were in that situation, how would I handle my shit? Experts, doctors, therapists, and your parents will expectedly encourage you to confront your fears, if you ever want to beat them. After watching this film a dozen times and introducing it to friends and family with relish, I can safely say: I was cured all right.
If you haven’t seen Arachnophobia — you probably have, especially if you’re an early Millennial— add it to your list of pandemic flicks to watch in self-isolation. Hey, at least it’s a different kind of germ for a villain. And look for John Goodman as the poker-faced town exterminator, stealing every scene he’s in, and proving even back then that he is an original comic actor. His thwarted attempts to spraying a spider with his private stock of chemicals, only to finally step on it? Gold.