Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Directed by Frank Marshall
Screenplay by Al Williams, Don Jakoby, and Wesley Strick
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, and Richard Vane
Starring Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, Julian Sands, John Goodman, Brian McNamara, James Handy, Henry Jones, Mark L. Taylor, and Peter Jason
Released on July 18, 1990
The Jennings Family has picked up and moved to the country, leaving behind their metropolitan life in San Francisco for the quiet down home feel of a small rural community of Canaima, California. The decision was sparked by patriarch Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) accepting an offer to become the new town physician, as the current one, Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones) is retiring. Or at least so they thought.
Their lives are instantly throw into turmoil when they find out that Metcalf refuses to hang up his stethoscope just yet, forcing Ross to slowly steal patients away from the aging asshole’s practice. Lucky for the Jennings, matriarch Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) is an accomplished photographer who can pick up the financial slack. Unlucky for them all, the town has recently been infested with a rare, supremely deadly spawn of spider hailing from Venezuela. Having mated with a local species of arachnid, our insidious eight-legged antagonist is overrunning the town with its children, thereby amping up the quiet town’s mortality rate. It’s up to Ross, an admitted arachnophobe, to help discover the source of these deaths, with the aid of a bumbling town sheriff (James Handy), two entomologists (Julian Sands, Brian McNamara), and a quirky country exterminator (John Goodman).
Man vs. nature has always been a central theme in storytelling. Focusing more specifically on the horror genre, pitting man against beast on the silver screen has been done for decades. The 1950s brought us the (often atomic-fueled) likes of The Deadly Mantis and Them!. The 1970s unleashed the entertaining terrors of Jaws and hordes of imitators (Grizzly, Piranha, Orca, etc.). The 1980s brought us Deadly Eyes, Slugs, The Nest, Venom, and many others.
Spiders in particular have always been a touchstone for the horror genre, often being utilized to randomly goose the audience with a jump scare or wielded under the power of some supernatural force (i.e. The Believers). There are plenty of spider-centric terrors as well, from Tarantula to Kingdom of the Spiders to Eight-Legged Freaks to Big Ass Spider. Others may not agree, but I count Arachnophobia among the best of them.
Given that it is an Amblin production and it was directed by one of his longtime producers, you can certainly feel the Spielberg touch here. The wholesome Americana feel is sprinkled all throughout the film, both in terms of the primary locale and the people that reside within it. Even the most surly of the town’s residents (I.e. the troublesome Dr. Metcalf) is a well-rounded character who clearly has some sound reasons for forgoing his retirement, even if some of them are wholly selfish.
One of the better aspects of it is the fact that, Metcalf and the bullying manbaby of a sheriff aside, the people of Canaima welcome Dr. Jennings and his family with open arms. Even when they start cracking a few jokes at his expense when his first few patients are coincidentally bumped off by spiders (naturally unbeknownst to everyone initially), it’s not done so maliciously. Everyone generally seems to care for one another in the own, even the surlier residents.
Because no one is an outright asshole that you can root to see done in by a venomous assailant, it gives the deaths greater impact. That even holds true when some of the kills are meant to be comical, such as the “murder” of the town mortician and his wife. This makes their deaths not only humorously tragic, but also a bit disturbing due to the black humor inherent in their particular scenario. After revisiting it, I certainly thought twice about tossing food into my mouth from a bowl without looking first.
Films of this type also often paint scientists as cold-hearted bastards who care little for the lives of others when knowledge is at stake. Not so here. Chris Collins (Brian McNamara) is very much concerned about the town’s populace after realizing the danger at hand, immediately calling his boss James Atherton (Julian Sands) in on the proceedings. As for Atherton himself, while there is a bit of a detached way about him, most of that comes from the character being played by Sands, who has always had an otherworldly quality about him. No, Atherton is fascinated by what is going on, but his primary concern from the onset is to seek out the central nest and end the threat to Canaima as quickly as possible.
Character is always essential in these types of films, as you can only demonize as non-speaking, naturally-occurring “villain” so much. It’s not like some weird monster is on the loose. These are spiders, something that virtually everyone deals with regularly in their lives, no matter where they live. Still, director Frank Marshall manages to squeeze a lot of tension and dread out of the primary eight-legged adversary, aiding no doubt by some fun SFX work, as well as real life spiders.
Jeff Daniels has always been an actor I have enjoyed and he’s great here as the straight man amidst a collection of quirkier character actors. Kozak is equally wonderful as his ever-supportive wife. In addition to Sands, who is typically great, we also have John Carpenter regular Peter Jason as a delightfully stereotypical town football coach/high school gym teacher, The cherry on top, however, is John Goodman.
Featured as the aforementioned offbeat town exterminator, Delbert McClintock (love that name!), Goodman is the MVP of them film. He’s your prototypical “good ole boy”, strutting into all of his scenes with high confidence and a know-it-all attitude that it a tiny bit condescending, but not enough to be off-putting. You can tell that they just turned Goodman loose to inhabit his role and that he had a blast filling it out.
On the “scare” side of things, this film isn’t really interested in going for terror. As an early ‘90s effort, it’s instead going for a rollercoaster thrill ride vibe. Hell, it was actually advertised as a “thrillomedy” upon release. As a result, Arachnophobia wants to goose you and/or creep you out more than scare you to death. Unless you yourself have the titular phobia, in which case they already had you in the bag before you pressed play. Not all horror has to be scary, so long as it’s fun. Arachnophobia was a lot of fun 26 years ago and it remains a lot of fun today.
Up Next: Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
Species | Mute Witness | Popcorn | Wishmaster | Alien 3 | Cast A Deadly Spell
Disturbing Behavior | The Sect | The Addams Family | The Ugly
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer | Arachnophobia