The greatest trick Steven Spielberg ever pulled was underwriting his own knock-offs. Maybe he learned a lesson when Jaws resulted in monstrous spawn like Orca, Piranha, Tentacles, and land-locked counterfeits like White Buffalo and Grizzly (a.k.a. Claws), which cheaply approximated the perfected the man-versus-nature terror of Spielberg’s breakout. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and continuing with no real authorial mandate into the present, Spielberg executive-produced all kinds of amicable genre fare. If a movie could conceivably be called “Spielbergian,” it’s probably because Spielberg financed it. (An exceptional modern case is J.J. Abrams’s recent Super 8, which prominently figured Spielberg’s name in the promotional material, as well as his legacy in Abrams’s tale of extraterrestrially catalyzed adolescent growing pains. It was as if Spielberg—who also executive produced that summer’s Real Steel, Cowboys & Aliens, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon—was passing a torch, instead of merely endorsing a check.)
Falling just beneath Joe Dante’s Gremlins films and Robert Zemeckis’s first two Back to the Future movies (as well as his Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia is a plum example of peak-period Spielbergia. Marshall, who co-founded Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, makes his directorial debut in this satisfying B movie that effectively limns the conceptual gap between Jaws and Jurassic Park.
In the film’s opening scenes, a photographer on assignment deep in the Amazon jokingly asks if there have been any sightings of prehistoric dinosaurs, which leads into an expansive shot tracking a helicopter through the wilderness, as if Marshall were laying predictive Easter Eggs anticipating Spielberg’s prehistoric theme-park romps—an adventure a whole 65 million years in the making. While poking around the jungle, the photojournalist is felled upon by a giant spider, whose bite instantly kills him. Through a series of hasty oversights, the spider makes its way back to small-town America in a makeshift casket, where it begins laying eggs and dispatching its hatchlings to terrorize the resident yokels.
As the reluctant hero, Jeff Daniels’s recent transplant to the sleepy community suffers from a crippling case of arachnophobia (that’s fear of spiders, as he makes sure to clarify). The initial suggestions of Roy Scheider’s water-shy police chief in Jaws ascend to out-and-out homage as he teams up with a dorky young scientist (Bryan McNamara) and a grizzled, eccentric exterminator (John Goodman), who complete the Brody/Hooper/Quint trifecta. It’s tempting to call their alliance unlikely, if the very existence of Brody/Hooper/Quint model hadn’t made it so entirely probable.
Like the best Spielbergian joints, Arachnophobia hits a crowd-pleasing balance between humor and horror, albeit without hitting the madcap heights of Dante’s duo of creature features. (One of the special features included on this disc call Arachnophobia “Hollywood’s first thrill-omedy,” a laughably made-up designation that also seems to categorically deny the existence of the Gremlins movies and their various rip-off progeny.) Having been largely responsible for inventing the MPAA’s PG-13 designation, thanks to monster-in-a-blender grisliness of Gremlins and the heart-snatching of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Amblin gang seems to relish in safely testing the limits of family-friendly shocks. Save for a few shriveled corpses, Arachnophobia offers little in the way of gore. But Marshall commendably handles the tension, both by drawing out the inevitable spider bites that befall the townspeople in turn, and by crowding his later scenes with frames full of wall-crawlers—enough to test the constitution of any certified arachnophobic.
Like the best Spielberg productions, there’s a crude efficiency to Arachnophobia. Marshall takes great pains setting up Daniels’s expansive wine cellar, not merely as a way of distinguishing his big-city snobbery from the more humble tastes of the townsfolk, but as the only sensible setting for the film’s explosive, phobia-confronting climax. Granted, this is basic causal coherence, the very fabric of point-A-to-point-B genre filmmaking that passes muster as entertainment. Watching Arachnophobia amounts to watching its running time evaporate, minute by minute, its goofy scares and dopey character humor light enough that they seem dissolve into the ether, as enjoyable as they are forgettable.
Arachnophobia isn’t great filmmaking, appearing to be kept in check by vaguely resembling Spielbergian entertainment without rising to its altitudes. Likewise, it’s never really icky or inventive enough to evoke the more unhinged talents in Amblin’s talent pool. But it’s a pleasant, acutely nostalgic elicitation of the VHS era and the woozy, preadolescent excitement of awaiting the next cranked-out Spielberg Xerox picture.
The hi-definition transfer is entirely suitable, befitting the film itself. The video is bright, accenting the lively cinematography in the early jungle scenes, their vibrancy even outweighing the film's modest B-movies ambitions. The 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack seems a bit overextended for a film built for early home-theater stereo systems. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the ambient soundtrack (again, especially in those early scenes in South America) sound pretty terrific.
A pretty meager offering, all previously available: featurettes on the production, the opening Venezuela sequence, and Frank Marshall himself, each clocking in under four minutes. There's also a theatrical trailer which, like all the other features, is offered only in standard definition. Still, what did you expect? A 90-minute feature on the enduring cultural legacy of the film?
A pretty (sub)standard package for a pretty serviceable B movie, this new Arachnophobia disc functions foremost as a reminder that, hey, the film exists.