Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eight Legs, Two Fangs, and an Attitude

When you ask a group of people what gives them the heebie-jeebies, you're likely to find several staples.  There's usually someone who's afraid of the dark (a category I fall in, and if you make fun of me I'll cut you), someone who fears death, a person who can't stand public speaking, and then there are always a handful of folk who get the willies from creepy crawlies.  Insects, snakes, and rodents are top runners in that category, but most people tend to dislike one group of crawlies in particular...the spider.  Despite the fact that spiders do nothing but rid the world of surplus insects and tend to regard us as big, scary bipeds...thanks to our own natural fears of things that are low to the ground and multi-legged and the help of the media, we tend to think that spiders are always up to no good.  Then in 1990, long-time producer turned director Frank Marshall gave us a new reason to hate spiders.  So ignore that crawling sensation on your leg for a second and stick with me as we explore the fear of Arachnophobia.

In a remote portion of Venezuela, photographer Jerry Manley gets a very brief introduction to Dr. James Atherton before being bustled into a helicopter and whisked off to a sink hole in an unexplored tepui of the rainforest. He has arrived to help photograph potentially new species of insects and spiders that Atherton hopes to find in this sinkhole where geography has left the area unchanged for millions of years.  Upon arrival they discover spiders that aren't like any spiders ever seen before though, with innards more like worker bees or soldier ants (spiders are highly solitary and cannibalistic and to find a colony-like mindset is highly unusual).  One of the male mating capable spiders doesn't take kindly to his brethren being taken captive and he stows away in Manley's napsack where he proceeds to bite and kill Manley (with a fast acting and highly toxic venom).  The body is sent back to Manley's hometown of Canima, California with the spider hidden in the crate (they don't notice it at all) and it manages to get dropped by a bird near the barn and home of Dr. Ross Jennings, the new young doctor of the town who happens to have arachnophobia.  Soon the spider mates with a domestic house spider and produces a brood of large house spiders who act like worker bees and are just as deadly as their father.  As people begin dying around the town, Ross finds himself wondering if the thing that gives him the most fear is actually causing these deaths.

Like Jaws before it, Arachnophobia takes a slightly over-the-top 'what if?' scenario and fashions it into a thrilling man vs. nature yarn that is equal parts terrifying and witty.  Indeed, part of what makes Arachnophobia fun to watch today is its incredible sense of humor.  It understands that it is ever so slightly ridiculous (what are the chances of a spider this deadly existing, surviving, and breeding here?) and so it allows itself to joke a bit at itself and its type of movie (the 'small town besieged by a monster' movie).  However, like Jaws, its premise is based largely in fact.  There are actually great white sharks that are 25 feet long, and they have been known to attack people (though not in that volume)...likewise, species of spider, animal, and insect are introduced into American environments all the time from overseas shipping and have a nasty habit of messing up the surrounding ecosystem (such as the gypsy moth that has decimated parts of the Ohio forest, or the Burmese pythons that are thriving and eating prey in Florida).  Marshall takes a very realistic approach to the whole film (nothing looks stylised or artificial) and that lends the premise a surprising amount of realism.  Afterall, there is a reason people are still terrified by this film.  The comedy is also special, when Jeff Daniels as Ross Jennings quips "Respect is good, but I'd rather be feared" is a classic, and all of the scenes with John Goodman as Delbert McClintock, the town exterminator, are hilarious (with at least one showing his versatility...when he gets very realistically frightened going into the climax).  It simply is an all-around good thriller and if you haven't watched it in a while, its time to pick it up again.  And if you're squeamish of spiders and creepy crawlies...this film may end up being what Ross calls "Therapy."

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