Directed by longtime Spielberg collaborator, Frank Marshall, with a screenplay by Don Jakoby ('Blue Thunder') and Wesley Strick ('Cape Fear'), 'Arachnophobia' is a 1990 comedic thriller about a small-town doctor who must overcome his fear of spiders in order to save his family and his town from a deadly spider outbreak.
While on a research trip to a remote valley in Venezuela, Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) discovers a new spider species -- aggressive, territorial, deadly poisonous, and at the top of its food chain. After the spider kills the trip's photographer, the spider is accidentally locked inside the man's coffin and shipped back to a small town in northern California. Meanwhile, Dr. Ross Jennings (Daniels) and his wife, Molly (Harley Jane Kozak), move their family to said small town. They want to get away from the grind of the city, and Dr. Jennings plans to take over as the town's local doctor. But things seem doomed from their very first day. Their house is rotting. The local doctor reneges on giving up his practice, leaving the Jennings without income. Oh, and the Venezuelan spider has found a new home to breed an army of venomous worker soldiers...the Jennings' farm. The question is, dear viewers, will Dr. Jennings figure out what's happening in time?
'Arachnophobia' falls into a series of movies I desperately wanted to see as a kid, but there was no way in hell my parents were taking me to a horror movie. I still remember the TV ads with John "Oh yeah, I'm bad" Goodman from 'Roseanne', which was the biggest show on TV. The film looked almost like a comedy, but when I finally saw it on home video, it was terrifying.
What's it like revisiting the film some twenty years later? I'd argue that, despite a few dated elements, it's largely a success. Especially the third act. Before we get there, however, I'd like to discuss tone.
Tone is the overall feeling a movie conveys -- it's hard to define, but it's essentially the combination of every decision made while making the film. Every editing choice, set, camera lens, lighting conditions, music cue, and actor performance combine to create an overall sense of the film's universe and mood. For 'Arachnophobia', we are clearly in the world of Amblin. AKA, the imagination of Steven Spielberg, who serves as the film's Executive Producer. A nostalgic take on a small town, it's a bit goofy and naive, and yet the main characters are every-people with universal problems. Then something extraordinary or supernatural or sinister -- think Gremlins or E.T. or a poltergeist or the Fratellis or dinosaurs -- comes to town and our heroes must embrace their inner-adventurer and face their personal fears in order to triumph.
What's fun about Amblin films is how they delicately shift tone. They generally start with a quirky and fun universe that's a little over the top, but as the film progresses, as the suspense and stakes build, a tonal shift grounds the film and suddenly you're on the edge of your seat, worried for the main characters.
While the first couple acts may feel a bit dated, especially the big city vs. small town archetypes, and aren't exactly frightening, they're actually quite clever in how they build suspense. The audience alone knows about the growing spider infestation. In Hitchcockian terms, the spiders are "the bomb under the table" and the audience stresses out hoping a character will notice before it's too late.
Furthermore, the film is ripe with strong structural setups and payoffs. I wish I could name them all specifically, but that might spoil the last half hour of the movie. Let's just say, on repeat viewings, there are a lot of seemingly unimportant moments in the first act that come full circle later on. It's smart storytelling.
In the pre-CGI era, the 'Arachnophobia' filmmakers had to do it all as real as possible, which includes actual live spiders and some animatronics and puppeteering. There are also some spider-view show reminiscent of 'Jaws'. Generally, though there are a few goofy sound effects, these live action animals and effects really enhance the scares. It's hard not to see a real swarm of spiders on a wall and not imagine what it would be like to be in the characters' position. Even though I'm not afraid of spiders, when facing thousands, it's hard not to imagine that tickling on the back of your neck isn't a poisonous eight-legged baddy.
I didn't know what to expect when revisiting 'Arachnophobia' so many years later. It's certainly a relic from another era. Though released in 1990, it was developed and produced in the 1980s, and it feels like an '80s film. Feels like an Amblin film. Some things are a little silly, perhaps a little too broad, but that's, I think, part of the film's charm. Thanks to the special effects (and real spiders), I couldn't help but tense up in the climax, and I found the entire experience just-believable-enough and ultimately satisfying. Though times have changed, I wish they still made a few of them like this.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Walt Disney Home Entertainment debuts 'Arachnophobia' on Blu-ray in a single-disc edition housed in a standard Blu-ray case. Disc and packaging indicate that this film will play in Regions A, B, and C. Skippable trailers (just press Menu) include 'Frankenweenie' and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition', and an anti-tobacco ad.
Boasting an all-new digital restoration, 'Arachnophobia' debuts on Blu-ray with a clean and filmic MPEG-4 AVC / 1080p encode, framed in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Funny thing happened on the way to publishing this review. Just before our HDD Maestro-in-Chief was able to run my first 'Arachnophobia' review, Walt Disney Home Entertainment instructed us to chuck our review Blu-rays. The reason? The entire movie was awash with a grey haze. Black levels simply did not exist, and everything else dulled accordingly.
Now we have a new Blu-ray, out now in stores, and everything is back to the way it should have been. The source material is in excellent condition. There are no tears, hairs, scratches, or dirt. And other than a slight instance of banding (down in the basement, during the climax), the encode is strong, with no signs of noise reduction or edge enhancement. Daylight exteriors look the best and black levels are deep with only a touch of crush, livening up the entire color spectrum. The overall picture is sharp and well detailed -- the image is quite filmic, save for a few instances of noise in a few of the darker shots which still exhibit a wonderful amount of shadow detail, especially in the third act.
Overall, 'Arachnophobia' looks great for its age, and I'm very happy the studio addressed its disaster of an encode before their customers got involved. If you somehow obtain a copy of 'Arachnophobia' looking flat and washed out, exchange it immediately. But, other than review copies, I don't think any of the bad ones were released.
For a 22 year-old film mixed before the modern surround sound era, this English 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround sound track is a lovely surprise.
Let's be clear, 'Arachnophobia' will never compete with a modern blockbuster, but I was surprised with its clarity, dynamic range, and well defined panning effects. Trevor Jones' musical score takes on an ultra-wide soundstage with random instruments belting out of the front and right speakers. Voices and effects zip across the front channels as well as front to back (especially in the film's skin-crawling climax) -- this effect was much more aggressive than I anticipated. LFE has a few nice moments as well, but nothing bombastic.
My one complaint is about dialog. Sure, it's always audible, but felt like the voices themselves were sometimes a bit scratchy, as if there were trace hints of vocal fry. Not a big deal, though. Everything else sounded terrific.
The good news is that Walt Disney Home Entertainment has included all of the original promotional features from previous DVD Editions. The bad news is that there are only three, and they're all short and only in standard definition. I suppose the best thing about the two featurettes and theatrical trailer is that they're time capsules of the film's marketing era.
'Arachnophobia' is a fun film to revisit. It might feature some big-city/small-town cliches, but the film skillfully balances tone to make the audience laugh while tapping into the human fear of creepy-crawly things. The movie might feel dated in places, but thanks to the use of real spiders, it's easy for anyone to imagine what it would be like to face thousands of swarming venomous spiders. As a Blu-ray, it features vibrant, filmic imagery thanks to an impressive encode and blemish-free source. The film's 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a pleasant surprise. The Special Features are nice, but they're nothing special. In the first version of my review, I said this was For Fans Only, but with the upgraded picture, I'd definitely say it's worth a look for all movie lovers looking for a few thrills, chills, and laughs, especially with Halloween approaching.