When we think of the classic slashers and creature features of the 1980s and '90s, Arachnophobia might not be at the top of our lists - but maybe it should be.
Co-released with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, this spider-filled classic was the first film from Disney's Hollywood Pictures, a production shingle on the House of Mouse that allowed the studio to release more adult-oriented fare. (This was years before Disney would buy up Marvel, the Star Wars franchise, and Fox to secure an entertainment monopoly on just about every geek product around.)
Hollywood Pictures went on to release a wide range of films before folding in 2007 - including The Sixth Sense, Deep Rising, and An American Werewolf in Paris. With Arachnophobia, the label established its horror brand by creating a PG-13, Amblin Entertainment-esque take on the creature feature formula. However, these "creatures" have less in common with your average blobs, werewolves, or things-from-another-world than they do with slayers like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Once they invade a small American town, their presence seems less like an infestation than a personal vendetta.
Arachnophobia kicks off with what essentially amounts to a long-form cold open, in which we meet a sports photographer who has inexplicably been assigned to a scientific expedition to photograph a new species of spider. Deep within the "rain desert" of Venezuela, this spider has "survived in isolation for millions of years." Naturally, the photographer ends up stepping on the first scary spider he sees, an act which the boss spider observes.
Apparently seeking retribution, the big spider pursues the photographer and ultimately hitches a ride in his backpack. The photographer then unwittingly takes the spider back with him to camp, and seals his gruesome fate.
This is not the only time in the movie that the spiders display slasher villain-like intelligence. Unlike real spiders, these furry bandits go out of their way to slay people, stalking their "prey" and hiding in obvious spots just moments before humans stick their hands and feet in there. The spiders also seem to be able to tell which humans are onto them and which aren't, and they definitely hold grudges...
In an obvious nod to Aliens, these spiders - unlike any spiders in real life - possess a hive-like organizational structure, complete with a queen. When the spiders are first encountered in Venezuela, it is noted that the smaller specimens have no reproductive organs. One character compares them to worker bees or soldier ants. "If these are the soldiers," another character quips, "I'd hate to see the general." Of course, he does see the general in short order, and the General Spider becomes the movie's "boss monster," seemingly controlling the other spiders and sending them out into the town in a "weblike pattern."
After the General Spider migrates from Venezuela to an idyllic American town, it mates with a local spider who becomes the new generation's queen. According to the film's spider expert, her egg-laying cycle will produce an epidemic of super-spiders that will eventually wipe out the entire town, "and the next town and the next."
This explicitly raises the film's stakes, and also makes an obvious connection between Arachnophobia and the alien invasion movies of the 1950s - in which the incursion always begins in a small, isolated town for some reason.
After biting the photographer in Venezuela, the General Spider exhibits both vindictiveness and cunning by hitching a ride in the man's coffin as it is shipped back to America. This is how the huge spider finds its way to Canaima, the small town where the photographer made his home.
When the coffin is opened at the local mortuary, we see that his cadaver has been drained completely of blood - leaving him practically mummified. By feeding on him the whole trip, the General Spider leaves the unfortunate photographer looking "like some vampire'd had a go at him," as one characters says.
Most of the spiders in Arachnophobia are no bigger than the common varieties we're used to (with the exception of the General Spider, which is the size of a bird-eating tarantula), but they make up for it in brains and bite. Canaima's hybrid spiders are smarter and more ruthless than common bugs - or perhaps most animals - and their venom slays instantly. The spiders are also immune to large amounts of toxic substances.
When we first meet the new species in Venezuela, a spider expert sprays pesticides into the trees - likening it to throwing a firecracker into a pond - then collects what drops down. After the spiders begin to fall, the expert assures the photographer that they are expired. Of course they aren't, and one jumps right at the camera.
This isn't the only time we see the spiders exhibit unusual resilience, either. When the town exterminator is called out to take care of an arachnid infestation, he sprays one of the spiders three times. It crawls away each time, and it isn't until he finally smashes it with his boot that it perishes.