I remember ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990) as a truly terrifying film. In my mind it has the sheen of a high-tension aesthetically spare prestige thriller: all bare bathroom porcelain and creeping spider legs.
So it was a mildly embarrassing surprise to discover that in reality, it’s a PG-13 horror comedy featuring John Goodman at the height of his 90s goofiness. It’s possible that ARACHNOPHOBIA, directed by Frank Marshall, is objectively not a scary movie. Nevertheless, it scared the shit out of me.
ARACHNOPHOBIA is your basic infestation scare: a previously unknown but incredibly deadly species of spider is discovered in South America and accidentally brought back to a sleepy rural North American town. Jeff Daniels plays the doctor who’s just moved to the town. Jeff has big plans to settle into his rural life with his two kids and charming wife (supportive arm candy played, as well as possible considering the lackluster part, by Harley Jane Kozak). He also has a debilitating fear of spiders.
This is too bad, but also fate, because his house is where the killer spiders are setting up base camp. They are going to take over the USA one bite at a time–unless exterminator John Goodman has something to say about it. There are a few deaths and a ton of spiders, but (spoiler for a 30-year-old movie) the good guys save the day and none of the children are killed. It’s not that much darker than ET.
Did I mention I was terrified?
That’s because this movie is superb at making use of what is actually scary about spiders: their sticky gross webs (which several characters walk through, portending their doom) and the fact that spiders are really pretty small. I mean, sure, there’s the big giant one at the end that Jeff Daniels has to epically fight, and that’s gross: it has too many legs and eyes and I will always hate all spiders. But the terrifying thing about real spiders is that they can be anywhere and you might not notice.
ARACHNOPHOBIA is packed with small murder spiders: spiders in the lampshade, spiders inside a slipper, spiders in a helmet, spiders behind a picture frame, spiders in a cereal box, spiders in every conceivable crevice and people hardly ever notice they’re there! Until they’re dead. (Do you have the creepy-crawlies yet from reading the word “spider” over and over?) And let’s not forget the shower scene, which was every bit as terrible as I remembered:
This scene is gross and terrifying. First of all, she spends a weird and claustrophobic amount of time with her face directly in the stream of water. I would literally drown. Second of all, that spider is all over her entire body. The scene was actually made worse as an adult viewer by my understanding that this character is a teenager, not an adult woman as I originally surmised. CAN WE JUST NOT SEXUALIZE TEENAGE GIRLS WITH THEIR CLOTHES OFF, PLEASE?
Another thing I appreciated about ARACHNOPHOBIA is how explicit it got with its moral. I believe every horror film has a moral (more about that another time) and I have never agreed more with a horror moral in my life. At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Jeff Daniels teaches the children to respect all living things or whatever by not killing a spider and setting it free in their barn. Like a psycho. By the end they are killing the crap out of every spider in order to save the world. Moral of the Movie: Spiders are bad and we should kill them.
Honestly, my only complaint is that they didn’t kill those spiders hard enough. The house is swarming with spiders at the end and they use fire to take out a few. But if it were me? I would be burning that whole house to the ground.
Does it pass?
- The Bechdel-Wallace Test: Yes, but not by a lot
- The Sexy Lamp Test: Yes, technically. While the female “lead,” Jeff Daniels’ wife, doesn’t do much, a neighbor lady is very active
- The Willis Test: Yes
- The Ko Test: No. Pretty much everyone in this movie is white.
- The Roxane Gay Test: Lolololol Absolutely not.
What medium-scary movies plagued your childhood? Do you think they should’ve burned the house, or should they have gone for the entire town? And why DO they move back to San Francisco at the end? Doesn’t the city have spiders, too?