Arachnophobia expertly blends horror and tongue-in cheek comedy in the tale of a small California coastal town overrun by Venezuelan killer spiders. Frank Marshall’s sophisticated feature directing debut never indulges in ultimate gross-out effects and carefully chooses both its victims and its means of depicting their dispatch.
Beginning like an Indiana Jones film with an 18-minute prolog of British entomologist Julian Sands’ expedition in the Venezuelan jungle, Arachnophobia cleverly follows the route of a prehistoric male spider hitching a ride to California and escaping to the farm of newly arrived town doctor Jeff Daniels.
The droll John Goodman has a relatively small part as the town’s magnificently slobby and incompetent exterminator. Daniels is the one with the arachnophobia, which, like James Stewart’s trauma in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, must be agonizingly overcome in the spectacular climax.
Marshall has the directorial confidence to allow scripters [working from a story by Don Jakoby and Al Williams] plenty of screen time to develop characters more fully than usual in a horror film. With a variety of versatile spider performers including live South American tarantulas and more than 40 mechanical creatures devised by Chris Walas, Marshall is able to do just about anything he wants in terms of creepy-crawly effects.