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Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Arachnophobia just might be the most horrifying horror comedy of all time

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Jul 18, 2020, 8:57 PM EDT (Updated)

According to a 2018 study conducted by California’s Chapman University, approximately 22.6 percent of Americans have a fear of insects and other creepy crawlies, a figure only a fraction lower than those afraid of good old Beelzebub.

But whereas the devil continues to fascinate Hollywood, bad bugs have essentially been given the insecticide treatment. Once a staple of the horror genre, you now have to go as far back as 2002’s Eight Legged Freaks for the last time a bug-infested picture slid into the upper reaches of the box-office chart.

Perhaps it’s the sheer ordinariness of the phobia that has left studios — still very much steeped in a mentality of bigger is better — running scared. Bees, cockroaches, spiders, and the like aren’t exactly the most cinematic of creatures; well, not unless you blow them up to ridiculously super-sized proportions, anyway. And yet, by leaning into its mundanity, 1990’s Arachnophobia proved that size needn’t be a barrier to frights.

Released 30 years ago today, July 18, Frank Marshall’s directorial debut initially promises to be an exotic action-adventure. In fact, its opening chapter required a four-week shoot in the depths of a Southern Venezuelan national park. Here, plummy-voiced British entomologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) discovers a new species of sexless spider which, unfortunately for his nature photographer companion Jerry (Mark L. Taylor), also has a deadly bite.

But when Jerry’s coffin is transported back to his quaint fictional hometown of Canaima — with the venomous blood-draining spider secretly in tow, of course — the movie settles into a more suburban blend of quirky small-town drama, wry comedy, and B-movie horror.

Jeff Daniels, already a two-time Golden Globe nominee by this point, is undoubtedly at the heart of Arachnophobia’s low-key charm. Mild-mannered, unfailingly polite, and without a bulging muscle in sight, Daniels' highly arachnophobic Dr. Ross Jennings is the kind of unassuming leading man they don’t make anymore.

We’re on his side from the moment he rocks up to Canaima from the big city with his wife and two kids. We share his disappointment in learning that the town’s longtime physician has reneged on his decision to retire. And we understand his frustrations at being labeled "Doctor Death" when the few patients he does acquire meet an untimely end. Ultimately, it’s this inherent relatability that makes his journey from downtrodden outcast to unlikely hero all the more rewarding.

Jennings might not be a gung-ho wisecracker in the vein of John McClane (who was also competing for cinemagoers’ attention at the time with the second Die Hard). But he’s far from a humorless wimp either. Just look at the scene in which he drolly deals with Atherton’s assistant Chris’ (Brian McNamara) attempt to dispel his fears (“I don’t think I have that particular neurotransmitter”).

Then there’s the final showdown that forces him to confront the phobia he developed as an infant. Sure, it descends into the type of over-the-top schlock that the rest of the movie does so well to avoid, but you can’t help but cheer as he uses everything from vintage wine bottles to a resourceful blowtorch/nail gun combo to eliminate the deadly spider nest housed in his basement — all the while shrieking and flailing around as any regular civilian would in such an outlandish situation.

The air of relative normality is, in fact, one of the film’s greatest strengths. The death scenes aren’t the broad set pieces you may expect from a horror comedy but derive from the most humdrum of circumstances: A middle-aged couple tucking into some popcorn while watching Wheel of Fortune. An old man changing into his slippers before bed. A high school footballer putting on his helmet — a scene that no doubt left every kid of the early '90s double-checking their sports gear for years to come.

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Arachnophobia isn’t afraid to kill off its more likable characters, either. The spider’s first victim on American soil is Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), a kindly widow first seen rescuing Jennings from a jobsworth of a sheriff before offering to become his first patient. And although rival doctor Metcalf (Henry Jones) is cantankerous and insect expert Atherton initially dismissive, they’re still far from the one-note irritants that usually get their comeuppance.

The distinct lack of gore only serves to heighten the anxiety levels, too. Apart from the sight of Jerry’s grisly corpse and Atherton’s cobwebbed body, Marshall chooses to unnerve the audience in more realistic ways. Each victim goes into a seizure after being bitten, but there’s no wild theatrics, no blood gushing, and it’s all over in seconds. In the case of the jovial mortician and his wife, the incident even takes place off camera. Few other creature features have played it as matter-of-fact when it comes to showing how fragile life can be.

There are still more overt scares to be found, though. Marshall ratchets up the tension for a ceiling-dangling scene involving Jennings’ young daughter and her bullfrog-endangering new BFF, and there’s a palpable sense of dread when the spiders eventually invade the doctor’s household en masse. Perhaps what makes the danger seem so real is the fact that producers made impressive, if slightly ludicrous, efforts to steer clear of CGI. Only a handful of the hundreds of critters on screen are the result of special effects, with the rest plucked from a selection process dubbed the “Spider Olympics.”

Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

There’s also an inspired homage to Psycho's legendary shower sequence that’s then undercut by possibly the more abject horror of accidentally flashing your family. Interestingly, it was another Hitchcock classic, The Birds, that Marshall cited as his inspiration, telling The New York Times, “People like to be scared but laughing, like a roller coaster.”

The director already had experience in combining the two, having executive-produced Gremlins. But Arachnophobia only really strays into the madcap whenever John Goodman’s bumbling beer-can-collecting exterminator Delbert McClintock walks into view: Trevor Jones’ playful score even appears to give him his own jaunty theme tune.

Instead, the comedy in the "thrill-omedy" — a nonsensical term coined by the film’s marketing team that unsurprisingly didn’t catch on — is more grounded. Jennings’ wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) may be a relatively blank canvas, but she’s always on hand to serve up a dry aside (“Thank God you didn’t examine him this morning,” she remarks to her husband after hearing about Metcalf’s seizure) that’s in keeping with the film’s understated appeal.

A mooted James Wan remake suggests that the killer bug movie may soon be due for a revival. It will be interesting to see whether it can retain the original’s ability to draw both humor and terror out of the seemingly everyday.  

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