Frank Marshall is one of those mega producers. He helped bring awesome shit to the silver screen like The Warriors, the Indiana Joneses, the Back to the Futureses, the Gremlinses and etc. He co-found Amblin Entertainment with Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, and was also second unit man on a bunch of Spielberg’s stuff. The guy has had success a million times over but in the late 80’s he decided it was time to direct something. With his stature Frank must’ve had the pick of the litter. What would he make, an epic special effects adventure extravaganza? An epic heart wrenching period drama? An epic multi-world spanning tale? A spider invasion movie? Come again?
Yeah, he went with killer spiders. Who the fuck would have ever guessed that? Well it’s probably a safe bet to say Marshall and co pitched this premise as the Jaws of spider pictures. You have the transplant local guy (Jeff Daniels (The Martian, Speed)) whose small town is being ravaged by a giant lethal spider, he calls in the expert scientist(s) (Brian McNamara (Short Circuit) & Julian Sands (Warlock)), and the deranged professional (John Goodman (Flight)), and they go to war with the arachnid. It’s a solid idea that’s worked well before and wouldn’t you know it, the damn idea works well here.
However one thing they do that Jaws stayed away from for the most part is they anthropomorphized the main villain spider perhaps a bit too much. This thing gets pissed when humans collect his family/soldiers in the Amazon jungle so he kills one of the expeditionists and hitches a ride with the corpse all the way to the states. He then proceeds to setup shop in an old barn and sends his minions out to kill the residents of a small Californian town. It just seems like the spider is kinda too smart. In Jaws the humans invade the shark’s space so the fish was only doin’ what it does. In Arachnophobia the spider ventures where it isn’t supposed to (can a Venezuelan spider survive in a California climate anyway?) and that’s a little harder to get behind. The story would make more sense if it took place entirely in South America but they knew the film would be more effective if they moved the events to an environment North Americans could easily relate to. You know, cottage style houses and football fields and Wheel of Fortune ‘n’ shit.
As far as the scares go holy shit do the filmmakers fuck with a ton of people’s very common fear of spiders. A big part of the creepiness is that there could be a deadly one RIGHT BEHIND YOU! (Admit it, you at least thought about checking to see if there was a spider the size of Andre the Giant’s hand sneaking up on you.) They pull out all the stops man. A spider could attack you anytime anywhere: when you turn off a lamp, put on a shoe, in your shower, under your toilet, the motherfuckers could be in your goddamn food for Christ’s sake. There is no safe space. You can’t even lock yourself in a room because they can go under the door or come out the sink or anywhere else. Jeez.
There’s also other unsettling shit like humungous webs with dead animal parts stuck in them and getting that web stuck all over your fucking face! And don’t forget about the vomit inducing crunch you hear when a spider is squashed under a boot (plus the slimy gooey remnants it leaves behind).
I have to believe this is the best that a killer spider movie can get (although I haven’t seen Kingdom of the Spiders yet). It’s very Spielbergian partly because he produced but also because Marshall had been working with him for almost ten years at that point. So there’s plenty of that trademarked humor mixed in to relieve all the tension from the nasty bits which is very welcomed. They seemed to use real spiders for a lot of the shots but it’s obvious when they’re using a puppet for the main gigantic one. And they didn’t go for a T-Rex sized sonuvabitch like in the 50’s or 60’s which was a good move. They stuck to normal sized arachnids but punched it up with the one very big one and in pure numbers with the smaller ones. They weren’t afraid to show the spiders off and I appreciate that because it would’ve been lame to hold back on this concept. There are a lot of fucking spiders everywhere in real life so go hog wild, er, spider wild?
Franky picked a weird one to make for his big debut but like I said, I think he saw an opportunity to do a Jaws meets The Birds type movie. You know, give this creature its proper due. The picture wasn’t quite as big as either of those but it did pretty well at the box office and with reviews ‘n’ shit. In the end the film accomplished what it was supposed to, make a couple of bucks, be entertaining and remind you why you fucking hate spiders.
As a side note Marshall wouldn’t fare so well a few years later with killer gorillas in Congo and then have even less success with murderous huskies in Eight Below after that.
Anyway I’m not afraid to admit I got that arachnophobia. It ain’t paralyzing or nothing but those things are hard for me to take. So it’s all the more a wonder that this last viewing was probably my fourth or fifth. It’s a fun time, but also one of the freakiest.