My Misspent Youth In Films...
Directed by: Frank Marshall
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman
Released: July 18, 1990
What I Thought Then
This was one of the first thrillers that I really glommed onto. It was on TV a fair amount and had some excellent humor. And besides, it's not like it was going to make me more afraid of spiders than I already was. (True story: I once bug-bombed my entire apartment because I found a wolf spider in my laundry.)
What I Think Now
Jeff Daniels stars as Ross Jennings, a arachnophobic family practitioner who has relocated his family to the small town of Canaima to get away from the hustle and bustle (and earthquakes) of the San Francisco. However, two big problems meet him when he gets there: the doctor whose practice Jennings was supposed to take over has decided at the last minute that he's not ready to retire yet, and also people have started mysteriously dying. A killer spider from Venezuela has just arrived in town and is breeding an army of tiny spiders that can kill with a single bite. Once Jennings, et al, figure out what's happening, it's a race against the clock to find and eliminate the original before the entire town dies. Decent premise, but how does the movie hold up?
Really well, it turns out. The movie does a lot of things right. For starters, it focuses on character journey over plot details. The plot is, in fact, perfectly coherent, but it's not what's important. Ultimately this is a movie about a man confronting his fear of spiders, and that kind of personal arc isn't something you see so prevalently in low-to-mid-budget thrillers where the heroes are generally just trying to survive. The movie also plays up the suspense more than the jump-scares. In nearly every instance of a kill (or would-be kill), the camera follows the spider as it moves through the scene leading up to the death of either the human or the arachnid. As such, the kills are often less surprising than the near-misses. Seeing how the spiders slink around unnoticed is also a nice set-up for the climax, when swarms of them keep appearing out of nowhere.
The other thing the movie really gets right is tone. Horror and comedy are notoriously hard to mix, as the two have a tendency to undermine each other, but the film manages it. And it does this largely through the judicious use of John Goodman, who doesn't have a ton of screen time but does manage to steal every scene he's in. He's a little cartoony, but he's largely deployed for comic relief, and Goodman is such a charismatic presence on screen that you can't help but be excited to see him.
The effects hold up well too. Most of the spiders are actual spiders. The really big ones are animatronic models, but they're not on screen very much, so they never have a chance to look janky. I don't think there's any CG or optical compositing, so I don't get to complain about matte lines this time. There are a couple of minor things worth quibbling about. There's a scene where a spider nearly kills a teenage girl in a shower that seems like it's there just so the camera can lovingly track the spider as it moves down her cleavage. Also, with the exception of the opening Venezuela scene, it's an extremely white movie. I don't know how true-to-life that is for a small California town in the late 80s, but I feel like filmmakers would diversify the speaking roles a bit if it were made today. On the other hand, if this movie were made today, it'd probably be full of CG spiders, so there you go.
Yes. It's a really fun watch.