More than 45,000 species of spiders roam our world, varying in size from the Somoan Moss Spider, 0.11” long, to the South American Goliath Birdeater, a tarantula with a leg span of one foot. The spider’s representation in cinema has evolved over time and ranges in its severity and size. Initially towering over victims on screen in ‘50s sci-fi horror B-movies, it wasn’t until 1990 when realistic practical effects, comedy, and horror were interlaced into the production with Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia, which celebrated its 30th Anniversary over the weekend.
A creature with eight eyes and eight legs would naturally be frightening for anyone. That kind of biological make-up seems evolutionarily extravagant, not to mention how some species’ deadly bites can kill within 15 to 30 minutes. These intimidating features set a bone-chilling stage for a sci-fi and horror film as a metaphorical menace to society. In the ‘50s, when fear of nuclear fallout and the Cold War prevailed, these concerns naturally crawled onto the silver screen with such films as Tarantula! and Earth vs.The Spider.
Jack Arnold’s Tarantula! tapped into America’s fear of atomic radiation during the nuclear arms race. The film centers around one particular tarantula exposed to a chemical cocktail mutation that causes it to grow at an alarming rate by a well-intentioned scientist, eventually terrorizing a small town. Bert I. Gordon’s Earth vs.The Spider (later known simply as Spider) is essentially a plot-hole ridden rip-off with laughable special effects consisting of a web that looks like rope found in high school gym class. Foley for the spider’s odd roar sounds like a child’s slow growl or a decrepit wooden door slowly opening against the wind. Jack Arnold went on to direct The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, which also features a spider in a climactic ending with impressive special effects for the time. However, in this film, it is the man who is a result of science gone wrong and Arnold utilizes miniaturization as opposed to gigantism. Drenched in a mysterious mist while on vacation, the protagonist shrinks at a rapid rate eventually becoming smaller than a pencil and fighting off a giant spider for a crumb.
The giant spider trope transitioned from a focus on size to swarm in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, partly thanks to the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The Great Spider Invasion and Kingdom of the Spiders both depict the consequence of starved spiders deprived of their natural food supply due to pesticides. The migration patterns were therefore altered and the creatures invaded civilization. However, Kingdom of the Spiders started a new trend of presenting spiders as a concrete, realistic fear on screen. Steven Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws also perpetuated the trend of nature attacking civilization in a fairly realistic manner as opposed to utilizing garganticism or some form of radioactive trope. There were creepy and iconic bug movies of the ‘80s in the heyday of practical effects and slasher films such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Sean Durkin’s The Nest, and Dario Argento’s Phenomena. However, arachnids did not hatch and crawl back on camera in an impactful way until 1990 with Arachnophobia.
Renowned producer Frank Marshall, co-founder of Amblin Entertainment alongside Steven Spielberg, made his directorial debut with the black comedy horror film (or “thrill-omedy”), Arachnophobia. It was also the first movie released by The Walt Disney Studios’ Hollywood Pictures label. The film centers around a new species of spider discovered in the Amazon rainforest that makes its way to the United States, later mating with a domestic spider in a small town. The newly bred species of spider begins replicating and killing the town’s residents off one by one. Jeff Daniels stars as physician Ross Jennings, who moves from San Francisco to the rural town of Canaima. He embraces the small town life despite his crippling arachnophobia. Once spiders (and bodies) start popping up, Jennings hires a comically confident exterminator named Delbert (played by the lovable John Goodman). They discover the spiders lack sex organs and act as drones while there’s a general and queen who have constructed two nests – one in Jennings’ barn and one in his basement that’s under construction to build a wine cellar. The two men pull out all the stops to kill the spiders in hopes to save their town.
There are several components of Arachnophobia that make it hold up 30 years later, but the production and effects stand above the rest. One reason this film still makes your skin crawl is the fact that, like Kingdom of the Spiders, real arachnids were used in filming. Something of a spider olympics was held to find the right species. Wolf spiders, tarantulas, huntsman spiders, and hobo spiders were all tested for their reaction to heat, cold, and touch. They were also graded on their speed. The role eventually went to the Avondale spider from New Zealand, a type of huntsman spider, which looks menacing but is not harmful. And the role of Big Bob (a sweet shout out to Robert Zemeckis) was a bird eating tarantula. However, the General spider was actually a puppet made by Mythbusters’ Jamie Hyneman. The spiders were treated with utmost respect and care during filming. Any scene involving a dead spider utilized spiders that had passed away from natural causes. In a scene where Delbert steps on a spider, a cubby hole was inserted into John Goodman’s boot so the spider was encapsulated in a safe space while the Foley artists smashed potato chips or stomped on mustard packets to provide the sound of a deadly crunch.
Arachnophobia taps into our fears by exploiting the naturally disturbing traits possessed by arachnids: their cunningness, agility, mischief, secrecy, and aggression. A spider dropping down from the inside of your bedside lamp or hiding in the dark corner deep within your house slippers isn’t far off in terms of plausibility. It just takes one bite and then they scurry away; and everyone knows how uncomfortable it is to walk through a spider’s silky web. In order to control their behavior on set, entomologist Steven R. Kutcher was brought on board. Known as “The Bug Man of Hollywood”, Kutcher has worked on films such as The Burbs, Jurassic Park, and Spider-Man. On Arachnophobia, he used a blow dryer to guide spiders’ direction and other times would spray a line of lemon Pledge that the spiders would walk alongside. Kutcher also attached microfilament wire that would vibrate at a low frequency which would draw the spiders in a desired direction. To keep all of them calmly in a desired spot, the crew safely put them to sleep with carbon dioxide.
The kind of specialized training, care, and effects seen in Arachnophobia are lost in modern day creature features by the overuse and saturation of CGI. While monstrous spiders in films like The Mist and Eight Legged Freaks have their moments, there is nothing more disturbing than utilizing the real deal. The film legitimizes the condition it’s named after while also applying the nostalgic pseudoscience, comedic elements, and horror elements reminiscent of bug movies of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Arachnophobia is one of the best spider films to date and after 30 years, it’s campy fun that will still make your skin crawl.
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