Here’s a near-perfect overnight rental — ”small” by executive producer Steven Spielberg’s usual standards, Arachnophobia is just big enough for the TV. The movie should be fresh to a lot of viewers, too, as it was virtually lost amid last summer’s blockbusters. And with good reason. The title’s a tongue- sprainer too long for a marquee. The ”star” is Jeff Daniels, a likable, talented actor who has the misfortune to look like the world’s most generic white man. The bad guys aren’t memorable personalities like Freddy Krueger — in fact, the bad guys aren’t personalities at all. They’re deadly little spiders, offspring of a big South American bugger who has hitched to the rural town of Canaima, Calif., in a coffin.
But Arachnophobia’s biggest box office-marketing hurdle was that it’s neither a comedy nor a horror flick but something in between. Luckily, that’s also its strength as a movie. As Daniels, playing a big-city doctor who has just moved wife, children, and practice to Canaima, investigates the mysterious deaths of several townsfolk, you’re not sure whether to laugh or be scared, and Frank Marshall cannily exploits that as a major source of tension. He knows that spiders just don’t inspire the same sort of dread as Jaws’ shark — there’s something both alien and skitteringly comic about them. Still, Marshall (Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, making his directorial debut here) has obviously learned well from his boss, and his grand finale — in which Daniels faces down the big daddy arachnid with nailgun and flamethrower — delivers exactly the smart pop thrills we’ve come to expect from this gang. Expect this movie to have more legs at home than it did in theaters. B+