Arachnophobia (US - BD)
Gabe feels itchy all over and is pretty sure this red spot is a spider bite...
A group of scientists, led by entomologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands), head to the Amazon with the hope of discovering new species of insects and arachnids. In tow is a sports photographer named Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor), who is generally unprepared for the journey. After a day of finding bugs, Jerry is bitten by an as yet unclassified spider, and dies in the night. Assuming his death was related to a fever the group sends him home to Canaima, California in a wooden coffin. The spider hitches a ride in the coffin to breed with the local California spiders and build an army. Meanwhile, arachnophobic Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak), son Tommy (Garette Patrick Ratliff), and daughter Shelly (Marlene Katz) move to Canaima, where he plans to take over for the town’s elderly family physician Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). When Ross arrives, he’s shocked to learn that Sam has decided not to retire, leaving Ross with no means of income and the trouble of finding his own client base.
Arachnophobia is one of those odd mainstream successes that is, for the most part, a genuinely good film, yet I entirely forget it exists. There’s something oddly vacuous about the film that makes for an extremely immediate audience reaction. It’s difficult to resist its many charms and even harder to remember what exactly happened the second the film is over. I really can’t put my finger on why precisely the film doesn’t resonate, but it may have something to do with its interchangeable use of genre tropes. Everything here fits snugly within the Steven Spielberg/Amblin pantheon of the ‘80s and in some ways is even a bit of a capper on the shared style that effectively ended when Spielberg himself started taking a more proactive role as a director rather than a producer (a role he sort of reinvented for the new millennium when he started producing stuff like Transformers). The film is an obvious throwback to the (usually unintentional) camp of ‘50s genre movies, just like Gremlins, Poltergeist, The Twilight Zone, and *batteries not included. When released, it’s lighthearted tone in the face of genuine suspense moments confused advertisers, who officially coined the term ‘thrill-omedy,’ which, not surprisingly, would be never used again.
Arachnophobia marks the directorial debut of Spielberg’s long-time production collaborator Frank Marshall, who would go on to direct equally forgettable, but generally not as good movies, like Alive, Congo and Eight Below. Marshall delivers on the advertiser’s ‘thrill-omedy’ promise, allowing his actors to do what they do best for the sake of laughs while focusing his efforts mostly on the suspense and ‘ick’ factors. He treats the basics with a touch of flair and makes good use of more evocative, gothic lighting as the climax approaches. He never hits the dynamic or energetic levels of a Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson horror comedy, which would be the absolute ideal approach to the material, but he executes a good jump-scare and keeps the movie running quickly enough that it’s hard to get too wrapped up in what doesn’t work so well. Arachnophobia might also be the perfect example of a PG-13 movie, which is appropriate, considering Spielberg basically invented the rating. There’s just enough gore, grossness, and scariness to make it inappropriate for the littlest little ones, but not enough to be categorically offensive.
The screenplay, by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick, is about as by-the-numbers as anything can be (they even set up Chekhov's Nail Gun), which is fine, considering the film’s simple goals. It probably should feel like a big warm blanket of predictability. All Jakoby and Strick need to do is keep the story tight, supply a few slices of undeniably funny dialogue, some charmingly quirky characters, and a dozen or so creepy-crawly set-pieces. The cast is made up of a tight mix of straight men/women and character actors that play well off each other. John Goodman is the obvious all-star among the actors (not to mention the one thing I remembered correctly about the film), but upon revisiting things, I find I’m particularly fond of Julian Sands’ James Mason-tinged performance
I usually approach this kind of Blu-ray dump with low expectations. Disney is usually good about putting this stuff straight on disc and letting it look natural, grainy, and old, while still increasing the resolution enough to make the customer comfy with a double-dip. Expectations were further dashed when the release was held back due to unspecified quality issues. However, there was still plenty of room for improvement, considering the previous North American DVD release’s non-anamorphic status. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this textbook dump’s (no extras, no advertisements) new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer looked great, featured a generally clean, highly detailed look. There are some minor signs of DNR enhancement (ever so often, a face looks a bit waxy), but enough fine grain on the print to prove what were watching is film-based product. There are some shots, usually dark ones, that feature an uptake in grain and a handful of others that have a bit of a grain mesh over them. The early helicopter shots of Amazonian cliffs rival even some of the 70mm stuff I’ve seen on the format and, funny enough, the clarity of the transfer ends up making it much easier to mark the differences between the location and set shots. The best looking details follow this lead, appearing most impressive when Marshall and cinematographer Mikael Salomon are setting up multi-plane shots that require deep-set clarity. The uptake in detail is particularly valuable when it comes to the fine, delicate lines of spider webs. There are some dark shots (usually in the creepy barn) that are a bit muddy, including colour bleeding into the black levels, but these are few and far between. Arachnophobia isn’t the most colourful movie in the Amblin canon, but the naturalistic browns and mostly yellowed greens are clean and pop nicely against the occasionally more vibrant wardrobe and set-pieces.
The previous DVD release of Arachnophobia featured a Dolby Digital 4.1 track, likely taken from some kind of Ultra Stereo or Pro-logic original mix. This new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is perhaps at times overwhelmed by canned stereo and surround items, but mostly follows the lead set by a 4.1 mix and makes a graceful entrance into the 5.1 arena. The basic, centered dialogue is round and natural without major signs noise-reduction. Similarly centered incidental effects are often set a bit high volume-wise, but this fits with the stylistic tones of the film. Immersive effects include the sounds of unconscious/dead bugs falling from the forest canopy into metal specimen collectors, the soft buzz of small-town life, and the steady burning of incoming fire. The directional work is best used during the climax, where the scuttles of evil spider feet make the appropriately itchy audience anxiously glance around the room. Trevor Jones’ occasionally Latin or Southern flavoured, John Williams-esque score sounds utterly fantastic and rich. The instrumentations are sharp, well separated from one another, and well-blended with the dialogue and busier action beats.
The extras here are thin and include a production featurette/EPK (2:50, SD), a featurette on Frank Marshall (3:10, SD), a featurette on filming in Venezuela (1:30, SD), and a trailer.
Arachnophobia remains a cute gateway drug into stronger and funnier horror-comedy, but is also such light entertainment that it’s almost impossible to retain anything about it two days after seeing it. It’s perfectly pleasant, even fun, but I can’t imagine ever needing to own a copy of it. On the other hand, if you do want to own a copy of it you could do a whole lot worse than this barebones Blu-ray release. The solid 1080p image quality vastly outshines any non-anamorphic release and the DTS-HD soundtrack is reasonably sharp. It’s a pity there aren’t any major extras, but the A/V presentation and decent price tag should be enough to cover this shortfall.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 25th September 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Production Featurette, Frank Marshall Featurette, Venezuela Sequence
Easter Egg: No
Director: Frank Marshall
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, Harley Jane Kozak, Mark L. Taylor, John Goodman
Genre: Comedy and Thriller
Length: 105 minutes