DECEMBER 17, 2009
As a young lad, I used to read novelizations for movies I didn’t to go see (what was that company that would send the order form to your school? Scholastic?), and Arachnophobia was one such title. I read the book a few times before I finally saw the movie when it came out on VHS, and I remember not liking it much (by the time I was ten I already knew that these books were sometimes sanitized, so I assumed they were leaving out a lot of the action). However it has a strong following, and a cast of folks that I didn’t know much about at the time and have come to appreciate (Jeff Daniels, John Goodman, Carpenter regular Peter Jason), so I figured it was ripe for re-evaluation.
Well, I think I like it more, but it’s still an underwhelming movie for me. The humor is usually spot on (I love the bit where Daniels gives the football team their examination and the last dude just sort of goes “ahem” - i.e. he’s got no balls), but the spider action is poorly paced, in my opinion. It almost plays out like a particularly low body count slasher, with a single spider “stalking” someone and then their body is found later. Also, the movie is pretty long (110 minutes) and it’s not until the 90 minute mark that we finally have multiple spiders on the attack, which is a bit troublesome as with credits and the epilogue it sort of confines the spectacle to about 12 minutes. You can’t help but think of Gremlins (small town, colorful supporting cast, tiny monsters, comedic slant, Spielberg/Kennedy/Marshall), and that film knew enough to keep the “what’s going on?” stuff in the first half and let things go nuts for the bulk of the second.
But it’s definitely got its charms. Daniels is a great everyman here, not unlike your Bill Pullmans and Paxtons. He seems like one of those actors who casting folks simply don’t know what to do with (nowadays he largely plays shadowy government types for some reason), but his laid back charms are perfect for this sort of thing. And Goodman isn’t onscreen enough, but when he is he is a delight (“You thinkin’ bout buying some property here?”). And I was also tickled that Julian Sands’ character seemingly was the inspiration for Alan Grant, at least in the wardrobe department:
Speaking of Sands, he is center stage in what is undoubtedly one of the most overlong “prologues” in film history. Friday the 13th 2009 at least had the intent of trying to fool us into thinking that the group at the beginning was the REAL group, but I can’t sense any such approach here - I don’t think anyone thought this movie was about a photographer following some scientists around in a jungle. But it goes on and on, bringing us to a full 20 minutes before Daniels shows up. And again, the movie is kind of slow even without this opening. I get why we need to see how the spider got into the town to begin with, but it seems like they could have sped things along all the same.
For no real reason I’d like to mention that as a young man I had a crush on Harley Jane Kozak (largely from Necessary Roughness). I was kind of bummed that she got largely left out of the climax, though Daniels’ one on one showdown with the queen spider is pretty awesome. In fact, I honestly think a lot of this movie’s glowing reputation is due to the fact that the final 15 minutes are pretty awesome, letting people walk out of the theater feeling pumped.
The non-anamorphic DVD has only a single extra, an EPK behind the scenes featurette produced at the time of the film’s release, and is thus 110% fluff and features more clips from the film than interview footage. I don’t think I need to watch the film again anytime soon (I’d probably enjoy a revival screening though - the crowd reaction to the comedy would probably make up for the rather slow horror), but given its fan base and outdated technical presentation, I hope Disney ponies up the dough for a new edition. One that hopefully has the dangling spider on the cover over the moon (why is it gone from this case?). I also wouldn’t be opposed to someone trying to re-edit the film into something a little faster paced. At 90, even 95 minutes this could rank up there with Gremlins or Tremors (and yes, I know Gremlins is also around the same length - the difference is that it didn’t FEEL that long), but it just feels spread too thin for me.
One final note - the film was co-written by Don Jakoby, who is better known for his screenwriting efforts with Dan O’Bannon (Lifeforce among them), who sadly just passed away. Co-writing Alien and Dead & Buried would be enough to cement his place in the genre, but he also directed Return of the Living Dead, which puts him on an even higher level and thus makes this an even greater loss. RIP, Mr. O’Bannon.
What say you?