I was in fourth grade, so probably around nine years old, when I watched Arachnophobia for the first and (until now) last time. I remember because I was sleeping over at David Miller's house and were being watched by his uncle Brian, a Vietnam War vet with a terrible fear of cucumbers. Apparently this uncle, while on jungle patrol, had fallen into a nest of snakes and been bitten pretty badly. The snakes, Uncle Brian told us, smelled just like cucumbers, so even the merest whiff was enough to set him into a nervous, stammering sweat. I saw it happen once at the park when we walked by a concession stand. I don't remember making fun of him (even in private), but apparently David's crazy uncle never liked me, or maybe he just got it into his head that kids couldn't be kids without a healthy fear of something, so he rented Arachnophobia to scare the shit out of us.
Prior to this movie I remember cultivating, if not fear, than a healthy respect for spiders. Afterwards, I spent months poking at piles of clothes, or bedding, or books, expecting some eight-legged nightmare to come skittering out. It got to the point where I carried a little stick around--which ended up getting me in quite a bit of trouble, but that's not really part of this story. Between then and now I've gotten a better handle on my relationship with spiders to the point where I'm capable of carefully collecting the monstrously huge wolf spiders in my basement and transporting them safely outside.
But Arachnophobia, well…THAT is my Everest.
The movie is nothing special, a horror-comedy (thanks to John Goodman) with a few jump scares and plenty of spider wrangling, and yet I still can't watch the initial scene--a long helicopter shot of a South American Rainforest--without clenching my teeth.
So, in the spirit of the season, and fortified with the thought that, based on my size and age, I am, most likely, an adult, I resolved to face the (frankly ridiculous) movie that be-webbed my childhood.
And here we go…
So, after the aforementioned establishing shot and a list of credits that are, in a word: confounding (Stephen Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman, and Harley Jane Kozak (now the successful author of a half-dozen crime and paranormal romance novels), we are treated to some expository dialogue wherein Dr. Atherton, an entomologist played by Julian Sands (who I best remember as the eponymous "Warlock" from the film Warlock), explains he is traveling to some bizarre sinkhole in the middle of the rainforest to try and discover new species of arachnids.
Also, there is a disposable photographer who tags along to serve as a sounding board for explanations as well as a vehicle for introducing our main antagonist--King Spider. So, it's never really clear if King Spider is intelligent or not. Throughout the film, numerous characters refer to it as: "a general, sending his soldiers out to conquer territory," which, together with the care it shows in sneaking its way back to the States in the coffin of a dead idiot makes a pretty compelling case for something beyond animal cunning. Once it gets to the Pacific Northwest though, King Spider acts like pretty much any other run-of-the-mill arachnid with an instantly lethal bite--so dumb.
Dr. Atherton makes a big deal about the occupants of the sinkhole being undisturbed for millions of years, a veritable time-capsule or some such nonsense. But, instead of weird insects and incredibly specialized birds, they find the deadliest spider in the world. Leaving aside that's not really how evolution works, King Spider doesn't really ever seem to eat anything it kills, at least anything big. I mean, it waits, presumably days, next to the decomposing body of its first victim without even a nibble. The sinkhole doesn't really show any indication of large prey either. So basically, the most poisonous arachnid on Earth developed in an ecological vacuum.
So, okay, Jeff Daniels shows up as the new doctor to a small town in the Pacific Northwest. He's got a wife who just gave up a high-paying exec job, and two kids who are basically cardboard cutouts--honestly, I don't think they say more than two lines without Daniels or Kozak present.
King Spider mates with a regular house spider (somehow), has a billion super-deadly kids (somehow), who proceed to start killing people (somehow), and Daniels (somehow) gets blamed. The thing about it is, there are REAL GODDAM SPIDERS crawling every which way, dropping out of trees, jumping out of cereal boxes, skulking along the corners of rooms, and straight-up murdering people.
Welcome to my nightmares.
As a hardened horror fan, I can sit through jump scares without batting an eye (just look for the cues) or (although I find it distasteful) watch a pleading victim dismembered by an oversized guy with a mask, but honestly, those freakin' spiders had me hiding my face behind a pillow like I was nine again. I couldn't even begin to fathom why the protagonists, when faced with a spider that can kill in seconds, decide to go searching for it BARE-HANDED instead of running the hell away or demanding a hazmat suit like any reasonable person. They don't tell the town, they don't try to evacuate people even after they learn only the King Spider can reproduce. They just continue to double-down on the unprotected spider search.
Enter John Goodman.
Meant as comic relief, Goodman's character is strangely against-tone for a movie full of characters and scenes that take themselves reasonably seriously. He's an exterminator and a rambling buffoon played in typical tongue-in-cheek Goodman fashion. More than that, he's a hero.
On one hand, we've got Jeff Daniels, a highly-educated, self-righteous asshole with a childhood fear or spiders--yes, yes, I get the irony. In the climax, he faces his fear, smashes his wine collection, and kills King Spider, but before that he spends most of the movie alternately flailing around in khakis and a ridiculous white sweatshirt, running from spiders, whining about how things never go his way, or pressed up against the wall in a cold sweat.
Goodman, on the other hand, faces a billion of the most deadly arachnids the world has ever seen and kills them all. He never breaks stride, gamboling from corpse to corpse, delivering one-liners with all the deadpan affect of a practiced sociopath. The man is clearly insane, but sometimes a little crazy is just what you need when you're up against the Spider Reich.
Daniels' character earns nothing. He may have killed King Spider and "saved" his carboard family, but I find it hard to believe that being almost murdered by something a dozen times would make anyone LESS afraid of it. More than that, he and his family end the movie by moving back to San Diego and reclaiming their old apartment, their old jobs, and their old lives...which, might I add, is exactly where they started.
But this isn't about them, it's about me.
I came into Arachnophobia as Jeff Daniels--a whiney, self-pitying coward with an exaggerated childhood fear; I like to think I left as John Goodman--a burgeoning sociopath with a slew of one-liners. Am I still afraid of spiders? No. Am I still afraid of Arachnophobia? Also, no. Although I will admit, just yesterday, I screamed like a nine-year-old when one of those enormous wolf spiders my basement so expertly cultivates went skittering between my feet as I emptied the clothes dryer.
And so, I will leave you as Arachnophobia leaves you: with an original Jimmy Buffet Song composed for the movie--because nothing says HORDES OF MURDEROUS SPIDERS like the man behind "Cheeseburger in Paradise."