Besieged in his wine cellar by a couple of giant creepy-crawlies, Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), a man with a consuming fear of spiders, picks up the nearest available weapon, a bottle of his most precious Chateau Margaux (price: $127). We all know what he has to do he must destroy his prized possession in order to save himself. But instead, he gazes ruefully at the bottle, tosses off a quick, determined ''Not the chateau!'' and looks around for another less expensive tool.
Arachnophobia is a skin-crawling horror film that never loses its cheeky, throwaway edge. Billed as a ''Thrill-omedy'' (what an awful word! it sounds like somebody got sick from too many rides on the Whip), the movie was coproduced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios' new Hollywood Pictures division. Together, these two paragons of sweet-natured escapism have come up with a gross-out flick even Grandma could love. Arachnophobia will make you jump a few times, but it isn't a relentless, primal scare-a-thon like Jaws or Alien. It gives you the willies in a cheery, presentable way.
The setting is Canaima, Calif., a white-picket-fence community perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by gorgeous, beckoning green hills, Canaima is so pristinely picturesque it's a joke. Have we landed on Fantasy Island? Perhaps. For Canaima is, of course, an updated version of all those mythical American small towns that were invaded by monsters in '50s horror films. Arachnophobia is a '50s-style B movie told with a knowing wink. It's The Blob done with craftsmanship and wit, and with a genuine, organic terror in place of the cardboard mutants of the radiation-paranoia years.
Daniels' Ross Jennings is a physician who has moved his wife (Harley Jane Kozak) and two young children to Canaima to escape the rigor and pace of San Francisco. He's supposed to take over for the retiring local doc, but as soon as they get there, Dr. Metcalf (Henry Jones) decides he's a little young to be packing it in. For Jennings, this is very bad news indeed. But his misfortune is overshadowed when various townspeople start turning up dead.
No one knows it yet, but there's a monster at large, a poisonous, tarantula-like spider that has hitched a ride to Canaima inside the coffin of a photographer it killed in the Venezuelan jungles. The hairy-legged beast takes up residence in the Jennings' barn and I mean it literally moves in, spinning a glistening, wall-to-wall web and then mating with an American house spider. The result is a vast offspring of lethal three-inch-long spiders. Soon they're everywhere: dropping into a teenage girl's shower, wriggling through people's popcorn, dangling from strands on lampshades and banisters.
Daniels, with his cartoon-jutting jaw, is at his most appealingly square as the eager-beaver Jennings. The character takes shape around a nifty black joke: Here he is, an earnest young physician who has given up his big-city practice to become a neighborly doctor, and the moment he starts examining patients they start dropping like flies.
Jennings was terrorized by a spider when he was 2 years old; he was so paralyzed with fear he literally froze in his diaper. Ever since, he has suffered from arachnophobia the irrational fear of spiders. The movie treats this Hitchcockian neurosis with tongue firmly in cheek. Even Daniels' traumatic memory is too much of a sob story to take seriously (poor thing seeing that spider was his very first memory!).
Arachnophobia needs every bit of Daniels' breezy, high-school-quarterback charm. He gives the film a center of gravity, and he counterpoints the daffy eccentrics who populate Canaima, folks like the blasé mortician, Irv Kendall (Roy Brocksmith), who tends to scarf snacks around corpses, or the sassy old schoolmarm, Miss Hollins (Mary Carver). In addition, John Goodman gives a refreshingly understated comic-galoot performance as Delbert McClintock, the Dirty Harry of exterminators. When this strutting goofball can't kill a spider by spraying it, he simply crushes it with his big boot.
I confess I wish Arachnophobia were scarier. Too much is made of the fact that the little attackers are poisonous. After all, that's not why people are frightened of spiders. What's terrifying are those gross, prickly legs the sight of this thing not just moving down your wall but walking, with obscenely purposeful ease. The movie gets that ickiness on the screen without pushing it to maximum overdrive. It doesn't use spiders to play with your mind. For some, though, that may come as a relief. B+