HALLOWEEN: ARACHNOPHOBIA

From the July 20, 1990, Deseret News

ARACHNOPHOBIA — Jeff Daniels, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Harley Kozak; rated PG-13 (violence, profanity).

"Arachnophobia" is unquestionably the "Jaws" of spider movies!

Frank Marshall has given moviegoers a remarkable first-time directing effort with this horror-comedy, offering more thrills, chills and laughs than any scary movie since the first "Poltergeist."

In fact, "Arachnophobia" could give horror films a good name again, since the gore is at a minimum, the scares are at a maximum, the film is loaded with solid humor and the story is allowed to progress logically, unlike so many films in this genre in recent years. (The PG-13 rating is appropriate for some violence and a few profanities.)

The influence of co-executive producer Steven Spielberg is apparent — and why not? Marshall has long been a Spielberg protégé, as a producer and second-unit director (Marshall directed the second-unit action scenes for the last two "Indiana Jones" pictures and the live-action sequences for the two "Roger Rabbit" cartoon shorts).

But Marshall manages to put his own stamp on "Arachnophobia," which is sure to start a run on bug spray in coming weeks.

The film opens in Venezuela, where a scientist (Julian Sands of "A Room With a View") is looking for new spider strains. He takes his team down into a deep sinkhole on a cliffside in the middle of the rainforest and discovers a tarantula that is seemingly indestructible and more than a little poisonous.

When one of the team dies mysteriously, Sands doesn't notice the tarantula that climbs into the coffin and hitches a ride to the United States. The eight-legged killer winds up in a small rural town where a doctor (Jeff Daniels, "The Purple Rose of Cairo") has just moved his family from San Francisco. In his barn the creature mates with a domestic spider and creates deadly little offspring, which start knocking off locals.

Once we leave Venezuela, the film takes a deceitful turn as it becomes largely a humorous homespun tale of suspicious city folk up against wary country folk, with all kinds of great characters — the old doctor (Henry Jones), the dumb-but-arrogant sheriff (Stuart Pankin), the wise widow (Mary Carver), etc.

But the real scene-stealer is John Goodman as the town's "Rambo"-like exterminator. Goodman is hilarious, playing both comic relief and secondary hero. He's initially called in to check for termites in the young doctor's cellar, which is filled with rotting boards. And he gets his first big laugh as he explains that the trouble isn't termites. "Bad wood," he deadpans.

What Marshall is doing throughout this lengthy centerpiece is cleverly distracting us as he sneakily builds the suspense, working toward a terrifying climax that involves spiders all over Daniels' home, followed by a one-on-one battle-to-the-death with the big daddy killer tarantula. The tension is unbearable as these scenes progress.

Movies like this are made or broken by the direction, and Marshall keeps the audience on edge, performing a remarkable balancing act between the humor and the shocks.

The cast feels just right — from the folksy town residents (Jones, Pankin, Carver, Roy Brocksmith, Peter Jason) to the cynical, distracted scientist (Sands) to the good doctor and his family (Daniels, Harley Kozak). And, of course, the can-do-no-wrong actor of the moment, John Goodman.