What's Giant, Venezuelan, and Introduces Itself To You When You Open a California Coffin?

Arachnophobia has been billed by its distributor, Buena Vista Pictures, as "the first thrill-omedy," a novel combination, one supposes, of the horrific and the humorous. While the film does combine these elements, its success lies not so much with an original synthesis as with prudent use of time-proven moviemaking techniques.

Director Frank Marshall's debut effort betrays his debt to the work of his mentor and fellow executive producer, Steven Spielberg, and in turn, Alfred Hitchcock. The basic premises of Arachnophobia invoke themes featured prominantly in many of Spielberg and Hitchcock's films.

Arachnophobia

Directed by Frank Marshall

Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Richard Vane

Hollywood Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

The Plot, admirably scripted by Don Jackoby and Wesley Strick from a story by Jackoby and Al Williams, centers on a giant Venezuelan spider, accidentaly imported into a small northern Californian town in the coffin of its first victim. The belligerant arachnid then mates with a harmless domestic spider, creating a deadly army of offspring which quickly goes about killing members of the unsuspecting populace. The remainder of the film concerns itself with the town's efforts to rid itself of the newly acquired menace.

At first glance, these elements appear to be the makings of--at best--a very ordinary film. Buena Vista's promotional effort, "Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude," certainly does not aid in dispelling such notions. The dark side of operating within the Spielberg creative genre is that for every Jaws and E.T. there exist the possibility of producing a tenuous, insipid film along the lines of Goonies and Explorers, both unqualified disasters.

What precludes Arachnophobia from such a forgettable fate is Marshall's subtle wit and artful direction of the talented cast.

At its core, Arachnophobia is a film about the effects of an extraordinary phenomenon on a small American town. The theme is clearly reminiscent of Spielberg's Jaws, Close Encounters of a Third Kind, E.T., and even further back, of Hitchcock's The Birds. Like all those films, Arachnophobia tells this story primarily through the trials and tribulations of a single male character; Roy Schnieder in Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, and Rod Taylor in The Birds. Here that role is filled by Jeff Daniel, who plays Ross Jennings, an Ivy League-educated doctor who moves his family to little Canaima to get away from the hectic pace of life in the city.

Arachnophobia is given extra dimension by borrowing yet another technique made famous by Hitchcock. In Psycho and Rebecca, Hitchcock explored the results of placing psychologically-burdened characters under severe stress, forcing them to confront their worst fears. Jennings' extreme fear of spiders effectively establishes the link with the audience which makes the ensuing action tenable. Jennings' fear is believeble because, thanks to Marshall's careful direction, the character himself is so wholely believeable.

While Marshall and the film's writers have consciously drawn themes from Hitchcock, they are not above taking liberties with them, and provide Arachnophobia with welcome comic relief. Marshall's wit (he co-wrote Blazing Saddles) is evident in his direction of a series of suspense-ridden false alarms. He keeps the audience off-balance by allowing it at times to come away with a laugh when expecting another gruesome killing. A typical example is the shower scene, an obvious allusion to Psycho, which comes to a far more humourous conclusion than Hitchcock's version.

Jackoby and Strick take further license with Arachnophobia's classic formula when they comically juxtapose Daniels' Hitchcockian character against the supporting roles, each of which represent the far extremes of man's relationships to spiders.

Julian Sands (Room With a View) plays Dr. James Atherton, a world reknowned scientist who leads the expedition responsible for bringing the killer spider into the United States. Atherton is completely single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge, exhibiting no fear of the deadly spiders, mocking Jenning's almost hysterical fear of them.

He meets an untimely end as a result of his own ambition, which in the context of the film can be understood only as a very dark joke.

On the other hand, John Goodman (Roseanne) portrays local exterminator Delbert McClintock as a much lighter character. McClintock has no desire to study the vermin, nor does he fear them; he simply revels in destroying them. The absurd pride with which this cross between Rambo and a Beverly Hillbilly goes about annihilating spiders, as if on a personal vendetta, effectively lampoons both Atherton's seriousness and Jennings' irrational fear.

Marshall also enlists the entire town in a supporting role. The local sheriff (Stuart Pankin), town doctor (Henry Jones), mortician (Peter Jason) and others help construct a humorous and more importantly, credible sketch of a town which has come under siege. As much as anything, it is well scripted characters tightly-drawn by the director and almost flawlessly executed by the cast which makes Arachnophobia the success.

Such success is almost assured by paying attention to the details; like introducing seemingly unimportant elements of Daniel's character--such as his love of wine and his wine cellar, the nail gun and his rotting wood floor--at the beginning of the film and having them figure prominently in its final climax; and like having victims and supporting actors that actually resemble real human beings. But most signifigantly, Arachnophobia possesses a hero audiences can believe in.

Jennings, like Hitchcock and the best of Spielberg's heroes, is an ordinary man driven to heroism only because of unusual circumstances. He is the reluctant hero seeking to protect his family and his newly adopted hometown, motivations which make the flimsly premises supporting this summer's blockbusters seem far-fetched and ludicrous in comparison. Rather than a series of explosions, shatterings of plate glass, or sickening gore, Arachnophobia uses the little things one can't take for granted today, believable characters and good old-fashioned fear, to keep your attention.