“Hold still!” she said, “there’s a spider in your hair.”
As I write these words, I still feel the terror I felt as a little kid in that moment. Would it bite me? How long had it been there? Had it laid eggs?
“April fool,” my mom said.
I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. April what? So, my introduction to my most hated of “holidays” and my deathly fear of spiders came to fruition on the same day. I’ve never entirely gotten over that moment. I remember learning about deadly black widows in first grade and then finding one on my dad’s tool bench. I remember asking my pastor around that time why God created spiders—his answer did not reassure me. To this day, my wife is the one who takes care of the spiders in our house. If I see one, I’m positive that at least six more are crawling on me.
So, as you can imagine, when I was twelve and advertisements for a crazy spider movie with the guy from Roseanne started showing up on TV, my thought was, “no thanks.” Even though the TV spots were enticing, it was being pitched as a “thrill-omedy” rather than a horror film, and I loved the actor I knew at the time as Dan Conner, there was no way I was going to subject myself to being trapped in a dark room with that movie, a couple hundred strangers with who knew what kind of proclivity for pranks, and the unseen arachnid menace that surely would have been far more present at such a screening.
Early this year, I found myself drawn to seeing Arachnophobia again and I can’t really explain why. It was almost like a dare to myself as Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which is one of my kindertrauma movies, had been a few months before (don’t get me started on that tequila worm monster). So, “how did it go?” I hear you cry. Well, as it turns out, the Thrill-omedy is still pretty damn effective after all these years. It even made this grown man “yeeee!” Yes, that is an accurate description of the sound I made when that spider dropped down from the lamp shade.
The story is simple enough, but the execution, including the script by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick, the direction by Frank Marshall, and strong performances across the board, makes for something really special. Two elements in particular steal the show: the great John Goodman as Delbert McClintock and all those eight-legged freaks themselves.
The character of Delbert supplies most of the “omedy” in this thrill-omedy as well as one of the most memorable characters not only in the film, but in all of John Goodman’s illustrious career. That is genuinely saying something considering this is the man who played Gale Snoats (Raising Arizona, 1987), Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink, 1991), and Walter Sobchak (The Big Lewbowski, 1998) for the Coen brothers, as well as voicing “Sully” in Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Monsters University (2013) and playing one of television’s great characters, Dan Conner, for hundreds of episodes on Roseanne and The Conners. Here, Goodman is more than just a comic foil to the mainly grounded and serious characters of the film, but an example of taking a small role, pouring every ounce of energy and imagination into it, and running away with the show. With methods more akin to the Ghostbusters than any typical exterminator and advice like, “tear out bad wood; put in good wood,” Goodman leaves an indelible mark on the role that made him the film’s greatest icon.
There’s no doubt that Arachnophobia is a great popcorn flick, but it is also a masterclass in building suspense and tension, relieving it with just the right amount of humor, and then paying it off with a great scare. Usually, I despise jump scares, but here they work for me. They are not cheap or unearned, but masterfully crafted for fullest effect. Having been a producer for some of the masters of this balance of suspense, humor, action, and drama of the 80’s like Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, and especially Steven Spielberg surely prepared Marshall for this task, and he certainly learned his lessons well.