MOVIE REVIEW : Arachnophilia

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Goodby “Charlotte’s Web,” hello “Arachnophobia”(citywide). Fair warning, too, for all of us who’ve retrained our reflexes so that we don’t double over and stamp at the floor hysterically at the sight of “a harmless little spider.” In Frank Marshall’s funny-scary primal scream of a comedy, there is no such thing--this king-pin spider shoulders his way through doggy doors and when he crawls up inside the bedcovers, it’s like watching the rippling progress of a Siamese cat.

Yet, because of the film’s light touch and the warmth with which it treats a revered form--the ‘50s horror movie--”Arachnophobia” manages to be genuinely frightening without being ‘80s-style revolting. There are no chest-busters here, dripping saliva that can pit the plates of a battleship. Marshall has gauged his pattern of frights and laughs carefully, to let the audience giggle at its own jumpiness, and his cast, which includes a sprinkling of the best-known American character actors, is a clue to his affection for the form.

It is the classic form, done on a grander scale: the blob/Martian/ spider from far, far away that very nearly wipes out the perfect American small town. Marshall’s attraction for its unyielding conventions is hardly surprising, his debut as a director comes after years as Steven Spielberg’s co-producer and both men seem to love the predictable pleasures of the B-movies and the Saturday matinee serials.


However, if the screenplay by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick, from a story by Jakoby and Al Williams, is an homage, it’s an updated one. We may have the usual earnest scientist (Julian Sands) to lead us to the lair of the unthinkable, “a place where species have survived in isolation for millions of years.” On the other hand, we have a very contemporary hero (a dryly humorous Jeff Daniels), unmacho enough to yell to his kids, “We need mom in here to kill a spider.”

Daniels is supposed to become the only doctor in this idyllic Central California town, yet he’s not at all sure that this move from San Francisco is for him or for his ex-stockbroker wife (Harley Jane Kozak) or their two kids. Like his treasured wine collection, he may not travel well.

It’s an upscale take on idealized movie small towns, suggesting that city ways, city pals and a certain level of yuppified civility may have it all over hallowed country virtues. In “Arachnophobia,” the locals don’t love Daniels, he has only one ally and he can’t even become their beloved doctor because their old one, Henry Jones, whose methods have calcified with his bones, unexpectedly won’t quit.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to everyone, It, the hairy critter from Venezuela has taken up residence somewhere in this picture-perfect countryside, has taken a local wife and is busy creating hordes of tiny, agile babies, each of whose bite causes a sort of Saturday Night Live comic-paroxysm death. After the first victim’s melodramatic fate we’re not often around for the kill but the filmmakers have a tantalizing time with its possibility, menacing characters we love and those we don’t with equal deliberation.

It’s a great relief to have these spider babies as small as they are. If they were all the size of dinner plates and furry as their dad, this could turn into a genuine no-fun movie, a fact you suspect the filmmakers and their spider-effects wizards considered at great length.

The fun of these movies is just how long the characters take to catch on to what’s knocking them off; when the right-thinkers will finally be believed and where their allies will come from. Daniels’ help cometh from Delbert McClintock (John Goodman), Mr. Bugs Be Gone himself, who chats with a householder about her infestation problem with the steady assurance of John Wayne soothing a threatened little widder-woman.


Goodman’s presence very nearly pulls the picture out of whack. His take-charge stance, the heroic angle from which he’s photographed--a sort of terrified bugs’-eye-view--and the sheer force of the actor’s own irresistible personality combine to make a character audiences yearn to see.

For a movie that plans to scare the kapok out of us, “Arachnophobia” (rated PG-13) is a friendly and nicely witty affair; technically, it’s a wonder. All its designs and its effects are perfect, so that we don’t know when we’re seeing live critters, marshaled into action by completely unenvied spider wranglers, or their non-living and equally shuddery counterparts. When, forever after, we knock our slippers on the floor before putting them on, it will be the fault of all of these artists.

“ARACHNOPHOBIA” A Hollywood Pictures and Amblin Entertainment presentation of a Frank Marshall film. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Richard Vane. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Marshall. Co-producer Don Jakoby. Co-Executive producers Ted Field, Robert W. Cort. Director Marshall. Screenplay Don Jakoby, Wesley Strick from a story by Jakoby & Al Williams. Camera Mikael Salomon. Editor Michael Kahn. Production design James Bissell. Music Trevor Jones. Spider created and designed by Chris Walas, Inc. With Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Henry Jones, Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Frances Bay, Lois de Banzie, Garette Patrick Ratliff, Marlene Katz.

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).