While many people will argue that ‘90s horror was a tad questionable until Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984) rocked up with Scream (1996) and changed the genre forever, I think that’s doing a disservice to the wonderful horror movies I watched growing up. One thing the ‘90s wasn’t short on was killer creature features. From giant man-eating snakes in Anaconda (1997) to abnormally large crocodiles in Lake Placid (1999), if you loved giant, killer creatures, then the ‘90s was the decade for you.
If we’re looking at murderous creature movies, it would be remiss to not talk about the one that kicked off the decade in amazing style – Arachnophobia (1990). This black comedy horror tells the story of Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber, 1994) and his family as they move to the small town of Canaima, California. Ross is planning to take over the local doctor’s practice, but things go slightly awry when a killer spider army overruns the town. This is especially unfortunate due to Ross’s severe arachnophobia.
Arachnophobia was a movie I was obsessed with as a kid. Rated a very child-accessible PG-13, it seemed to be on TV all the time when I was growing up. And as someone with a terrible fear of spiders, it was great to have access to something to terrify myself with, which is really what every budding horror fan is looking for. Thirty years later, Arachnophobia is still a brilliant horror movie, and also the perfect example of gateway horror for any young horror enthusiasts out there.
First of all, the choice to use spiders as the monsters in this type of horror film makes it the perfect gateway horror. Arachnophobia takes something that a lot of us are really scared of anyway and ramps it up a bit to make it even more terrifying.
Trying to create a new monster for a PG-13 movie is a challenge. It needs to be scary enough to freak out the older side of the audience, but not so frightening that it traumatizes the youngsters. And that’s why using spiders, but creating a fake species to make them more violent and venomous, is the perfect mix. Arachnophobia doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age.
“Thirty years later, Arachnophobia is still […] the perfect example of gateway horror for any young horror enthusiasts out there.”
Nature photographer Jerry heads to Venezuela to help Dr Atherton photograph new species of insects and spiders he hopes to discover. Among them, they find a giant spider with no sex organs, suggesting it’s a drone, something which isn’t usually found among spiders. After Jerry rage smashes one of the drone spiders, a much larger, Daddy spider called The General decides to take his revenge by biting Jerry. Due to its highly toxic bite, Jerry dies in seconds, and the spider hitches a ride back to Canaima in his coffin.
Once there, The General mates with a local house spider and takes up residence in the Jennings’ family barn, where it creates an army of deadly spiders which slowly begin to take over the town.
Except for a few close-up shots of The General and The Queen spiders where animatronics were used, all the spiders used in the film were real. And while all the drone spiders were actually harmless Avondale spiders, it doesn’t make them any less scary when they are jumping on people in the shower or spewing out of the bathroom sink in their hundreds.
Rather than risking dampening the scare effect with shoddy puppets or questionable CGI, the choice to use real spiders throughout was a bold one. While I’m sure the actors maybe would have preferred fake spiders, there’s no denying that the use of real eight-legged friends is the reason the film still stands up today. Spiders never stop being scary after all.
The movie also isn’t scared to kill off a lot of characters, but by keeping any blood, gore, or violence to a minimum, it’s still the perfect movie for young horror lovers. In a horror film with monsters on the loose, we expect characters to die or get hurt. This is probably why a lot of young horror fans loved things like the Goosebumps book series so much because they weren’t afraid to give character involved a grisly end.
There are enough gruesome bits, though, such as the quick shot of Jerry’s sucked-dry corpse or the spider crawling out of Irv’s nose to satisfy the younger gorehounds out there. It’s the perfect balance of just scary enough, a great intro to the world of horror, but hopefully not enough to give you nightmares afterward.
Let’s face it, when I was seeking out horror as a kid, I was looking for the proper scary stuff. I wanted films with deaths and carnage. Watching something like Arachnophobia, which was more suited to my age group, was far more appropriate than those times I sneakily stayed up late to catch a glimpse of Freddy Krueger. Kid-appropriate horror is a much better way to quench that particular thirst in young horror lovers.
The setting of Arachnophobia also makes it the perfect introduction to horror, by showing that not all monsters live in spooky castles, or the middle of nowhere, but sometimes they are right in your own back garden. In fact, the finale of the film takes place in the Jennings’ family home, with Ross’s two children right in the middle of the spider carnage.
“Except for a few close-up shots […] where animatronics were used, all the spiders used in the film were real.”
While Ross has had most of the film to get used to the idea of killer spiders prowling around the town, his two children aren’t really aware there is a problem until it starts taking over their house. And those scenes are arguably the most terrifying, even though there’s no death involved. The spiders pour from everywhere imaginable, including bursting from under the toilet seat and cramming their way through the bathroom door handle.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Arachnophobia also has some valuable lessons from the younger members of the audience. First up, it shows them that your parents will do whatever they can to protect you, even if it means facing up to the one thing they are scared of the most.
Throughout the entire movie, Ross is unable to confront the spiders he comes across. His wife has to move a spider from their house to the barn when he is unable to. Additionally, as they hunt through a house to try and find one of the drone spiders, Ross is frozen to the spot and tries to stay as far away from the action as possible.
But as we roll into the third act, and Ross realizes the epicenter of the spider invasion is his own barn, he doesn’t think twice about heading back home and getting his wife and kids out of the house.
And with Ross’s actions comes the second important lesson, about facing your fears head-on and coming out the other side. Ross stays behind once he makes sure his family is safe, and after discovering the nest is located in his wine cellar, he decides to tackle both The Queen and The General to make sure he gets rid of the spider problem once and for all.
Ross shows that it’s okay to be scared of something, especially as a man. It shows that you don’t have to be ashamed of it, but that you can’t let it control your life. Considering his young son also seems to suffer from arachnophobia, it’s really important that he passes the message down the generations.
Finally, we’re given the last thing a family-friendly horror movie needs in the form of a happy ending. While as adults, we may enjoy the final sting as Jason jumps up behind Alice’s boat in Friday the 13th (1980) or Michael’s body is found missing in Halloween (1978), but it makes sense to have an ending where everything is wrapped up nicely so kids can enjoy it.
“Ross shows that it’s okay to be scared of something […] but that you can’t let it control your life.”
Younger horror fans need to be able to enjoy the fear in the moment of the film but know that when the movie is finished, the world has been returned to its normal safe space. As the film wraps up, Ross has managed to kill not only The Queen and The General but also the nest of incredibly deadly spiders, which was on the verge of hatching. Delbert, the exterminator (John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane, 2016), has also killed the rest of the drone spiders, and so it seems the town has been returned to normality.
Even so, the family takes the unusually sensible decision for a horror movie family to vacate the property anyway and move back to San Francisco. It’s not the relaxing life in the country they were looking for, but at least there are no killer spiders.
Most importantly, even though a lot of people in the town die, the entire Jennings family escapes intact. If a horror movie is based around a whole family, it’s typical for at least one of the parents to get offed during the proceedings. A truly happy ending sees the monster fully destroyed, all the main characters surviving, living a happy life, and putting all the scary nonsense behind them.
So 30 years after 300-odd spiders crawled onto our screens, Arachnophobia proves it’s still the perfect, fun horror movie that balances fear, laughs, and spider-related jump scares perfectly. It sits alongside films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and Ghostbusters (1984) when it comes to gateway horror, and would make the perfect addition to a family-friendly movie night if you feel like freaking out the littles ones in your life.
What are your thoughts on Arachnophobia? What gateway horror movie got you into the genre? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page! And for all the best horror retrospectives, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.