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ARACHNOPHOBIA: Eco-Horror Comedy Fun for Everyone

By Larissa Zageris   April 22, 2024 

ARACHNOPHOBIA is a great four-quadrant creature feature of the ‘90s – but can it also help today’s horror filmmakers entertain for change? 

The last time I watched one of my favorite eco-horror movies, it was at a bar. I didn’t remember it was one of my favorites, at first. In fact, I didn’t recognize it as a horror movie at all. Instead, waiting in line for margaritas, I watched a young, handsome Jeff Daniels flicker in silent projection on the bar’s back wall. He stormed around some Norman Rockwell-looking town in full sunshine, frustrated with an older doctor and a bratty town sheriff. He told his cool wife all about it while they poked around a barn and drank wine.

“What is this?” my boyfriend and I asked each other, trying to piece together some forgotten but familiar scrap of movie memory in between sips of spicy mezcal. For about twenty minutes, we watched – and I wondered. Was this an erotic thriller I had forgotten existed? A legal thriller I once watched late at night? Or — even better — an erotic legal thriller I was finally about to rediscover?  Nope. It was ARACHNOPHOBIA — a movie about killer spiders invading a small town, and the arachnophobic young doctor who stops them. 

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ARACHNOPHOBIA came out in 1990. It was written by Dan Jakoby and Wesley Strick, and directed by Frank Marshall — a longtime collaborator of Steven Spielberg’s, and a co-founder of Amblin Entertainment. 

In addition to being Marshall’s directorial debut, ARACHNOPHOBIA was one of my favorite movies from childhood. I credit it to my own taste in watching and making horror comedy — or “thrill-omedy”, as the movie’s original trailer awkwardly (but accurately) calls it. 

I’m a child of the ‘90s, and some Friday night in the second grade, my parents rented ARACHNOPHOBIA. I don’t come from a family of horror fans, but the box cover art for the movie looks like a purple pastoral collaboration between CHARLOTTE’S WEB and Lisa Frank. It’s safe to say my parents were expecting something like a Disney movie dip into the dark side — and to be fair, that’s exactly what we got. And kid me loved it. The laugh-out-loud — and scream-out-loud — story of ARACHNOPHOBIA follows good hearted but prissy Dr. Ross Jennings (Daniels) as he and his family navigate life after a move from big-city San Francisco to the small and supposedly relaxing California town of Canaima. Jennings’ biggest concern is putting a padlock on his new wine cellar and finding patients for his practice — until the killer spider invasion hits. 

ARACHNOPHOBIA’s spiders are earthbound terrors, unwittingly brought to town from South America, in the casket of Canaima’s own nature photographer, Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) — dead from a spider bite that everyone else mistakes for a mysterious fever, including his arrogant entomologist boss, Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands). 
 

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When Manley’s body is sent back to Canaima, his killer hitches a ride back with him — and starts spinning webs of destruction in Dr. Jennings’ barn — unbeknownst to him. But it wasn’t the movie’s premise or any of this setup that was burned into my child brain. It was the movie’s final showdown between Jeff Daniels and the spiders. 

In it, Jennings helps his wife, Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) and kids escape their spider-infested home, racing them out of a bathroom window. When that window is overrun with killer spiders, Jennings is forced to find another escape route — only to end up falling through his new (old) house’s rotten wooden floor.

Jennings ends up trapped in his precious wine cellar with a spider called The General, and a massive, pulsating egg sac of baby killer spiders ready to end Jennings’ life — and the lives of everyone in his town. Jennings, who is scared of a typical house spider on a good day, must put himself face to face with a killer spider as big as his face if he wants to survive. And damn it, does he want to survive. Even more than that, he wants his family and town to survive. 
 

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In the typical horror movie moonlight, Jennings uses the full power of aerosol spray, fire, electricity, his exterminator (John Goodman), and his absolutely destroyed wine cellar to blow those spiders to kingdom come. That sequence was forever woven into my memory, and why I thought the rest of ARACHNOPHOBIA was, too. It was a movie I thought lived in my very bones — and in every real or imagined flicker of spider legs on my skin. 

Yet decades later, there I was, grasping at straws in some Brooklyn bar, only able to recognize ARACHNOPHOBIA after spending an embarrassing amount of time searching “hot young Jeff Daniels white suit small town” online. 

But while I was initially bummed to not know the movie on sight that night, after a rewatch in the comfort of my own home, I realized that part of ARACHNOPHOBIA’s strength as an eco-horror movie lies in it not being immediately recognizable as a horror movie. The “thrill-omedy” is a feature of ARACHNOPHOBIA, not a bug — and present-day eco-horror filmmakers might do well to take a page out of the movie’s book — or some silk out of its web. 

”We wanted it to be scary, but not too terrifying,” Marshall told Entertainment Weekly in 1990. ”We didn’t want it to be a typical horror movie — The Spider That Ate Cleveland — so we used a lot of comedy. We tried to make it like a roller-coaster ride for the audience. It’s frightening, but in a fun way.”

While ARACHNOPHOBIA builds to a third-act man v. spider horror movie showdown par excellence, it takes its sweet — and entertaining — time getting there. Thoughts of killer spiders might even completely escape the audience’s mind as soon as the opening titles fade into the gorgeously photographed opening scenes, filmed in the Venezuelan tepuis. 

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There, in a rainforested world about as far from small-town America as one can be, the brilliant Atherton bosses his team of scientists around — and his unfortunate photography lackey, Manley. Atherton is out for scientific glory and wants to identify a new kind of insect so badly, he shoots a numbing agent into the trees to agitate them. 

In a striking visual as beautiful as it is destructive, Atherton’s greed for new breeds causes a rain of dead butterflies to fall from the trees — and one very alive killer spider. 
That spider goes on to bite poor Manley, then later, a string of colorful Canaima characters before Jennings figures out what’s going on in town — which comes much later in the film. 

The bulk of the movie — and the part I couldn’t place at the bar — explores Jennings’ struggle to get his medical practice started when the elderly Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), panicked upon Jennings’ arrival in town, un-retires himself. Jennings and his wife, Molly (Kozak) navigate small-town politics while spiders build a mother of a nest in the Jennings barn. 

The town is funny, weird, and relatable — just like us!  You get to know people and their quirks — and care about them. Like Irv (Roy Brocksmith), the mortician who eats chips at work, and his wife Blaire (Kathy Kinney) who makes a bowl of popcorn that leads to their spider-bite demise while watching Wheel of Fortune. When these kooky characters bite the big one after getting bitten, their deaths are played as realistically as the spiders are themselves — and are all the more horrible for it. A brief glimpse at a dead neighbor, horribly desiccated over a football field or nightcap, reminds us all that death is only as far away as the nearest creepy-crawly.

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Spiders haunt almost every frame of ARACHNOPHOBIA. The filmmakers lean hard on Hitchcock and THE BIRDS, much like Spielberg did with JAWS before them. The horror is very real, very hidden, and grows exponentially under everyone’s noses — especially because those noses belong to heads that are shoved way too far up their own asses. 

Jennings suspects spider bites are the culprit for the town’s string of sudden deaths, but he’s on his own for much of the film. His scientific approach is rejected by the proud and autopsy-averse Metcalf — until Metcalf himself is bitten, and his last breath is spent calling for Jennings. Not that Jennings is an infallible hero. 

He doesn’t crack the case of the killer spiders on his own, but with the resources of county coroner Milton Briggs (James Handy), the trust of the high school football coach (Peter Jason), the expertise of Atherton’s assistant, Chris Collins (Brian McNamara), and finally, Atherton himself — with a little Bugs-B-Gone thrown in for good measure. 

Teamwork makes the dream work, and there is not a ton of teamwork until the eleventh hour of ARACHNOPHOBIA. The movie asks some timeless eco-horror questions this way: how much faster could we solve problems if we worked together? If we listened to each other? If we remembered that we were all connected, and part of the same web? 

To be clear, ARACHNOPHOBIA doesn’t directly ask these questions. The movie doesn’t chastise or grandstand any point of view. It just shows us how funny – and terrifying – life is when we don’t listen to each other. ARACHNOPHOBIA highlights how fragile we are, and how capable. We can achieve great things together — from introducing a deadly spider to a new environment to saving a small town from it in the end.  

ARACHNOPHOBIA is ultimately a horror movie about a big win in a small fight for everyday life, against a home planet that can feel alien. Jennings and his unlikely team experience loss, and the further losses they can just barely imagine, even beyond their immediate circle of concern, motivate them to work together to save what they can.   

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ARACHNOPHOBIA plays with triumph, community, and connection as much as fear. It’s why it appealed to me as a kid, my then early-forties parents, and everyone else who contributed to its 53.2 million domestic gross (and 30 million in video rentals) against a 31 million dollar budget (via The Numbers.) It’s likely why it held enough appeal to whoever decided to project it at a busy Brooklyn bar on a Saturday night in 2024. 


ARACHNOPHOBIA wins over the audience by scaring the hell out of them, making them care and laugh, and not being preachy or grim. Instead, it highlights everyday horror and how normal people handle their small pieces of it. 

I’m glad my thirst for young Jeff Daniels led me to reconnect with ARACHNOPHOBIA. My childhood heart is happy to have its full memory back, and as a grown-up filmmaker and scary storyteller myself, there’s a lot to learn from the movie. 

The world has certainly changed since 1990. In terms of ecological distress, there are wolves at the door and spiders in the barn. A strong modern horror storytelling impulse is to cut to the scare faster, harder, and more often. One eco-horror storytelling impulse is to hammer audiences with hopelessness. To revel in disaster and its effects on the planet and the human psyche. To rub our collective faces in the hell we have wrought or make us imagine new hells. 

Look – whatever floats your boat on this rapidly warming planet. But eco-horror is not just a genre – it’s a call to action. But how can alarms be sounded and action inspired without being preachy, and in a film system that prizes global profits over all else? 

There is some kernel of activism in even the popcorniest of eco-horror movies, so chew on ARACHNOPHOBIA. Eco-horror films can show us how we can face our fears — and throw wine bottles at them. 

Maybe there’s something to this “thrill-omedy” game after all — and giving horror audiences a bit of blue sky to hold on to. Even if it’s as thin as a spider’s web — that stuff is just as strong.

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Larissa Zageris (she/her) is the author of My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel, For Your Consideration: Keanu Reeves, Taylor Swift: Girl Detective, and many comics, games, and scripts. She lives in Chicago and is working on her great American ghost novel.

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