It’s a beautiful day in Cambria, Calif., as a film crew sets up a shot in a field that stretches between a rickety old barn and a small Victorian house. The cameras are ready to roll, the actors are waiting for their cues, the crew is poised for action — but the star is still in his private chambers indulging in an afternoon snooze.
”The spider is tired,” sighs director Frank Marshall as he paces impatiently on the set of his creature-feature extravaganza, Arachnophobia. ”What can you do? You can’t yell at spiders. You can’t fire them. All you can do is pray that they do what you want them to do.”
What Marshall wants them to do — what he has spent six months and $22 million hoping they will do — is scare the hell out of hordes of summer moviegoers across the nation. Along with its two-legged stars — Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, and John Goodman — the film features hundreds of the creepiest arachnids ever to crawl across the silver screen, including Big Bob, the party-size Brazilian tarantula whose slumber is holding up Marshall’s big scene.
Arachnophobia is the first film released by Hollywood Pictures, a new division of Walt Disney Studios, and giving this project a green light represented a bit of a gamble for the fledgling company. Aside from being Disney’s maiden foray into the horror genre, it’s also fresh territory for the 43-year-old Marshall. No stranger to filmmaking, the longtime Steven Spielberg associate has served as either producer or executive producer on the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future trilogies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Gremlins, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, among other blockbusters. But this is the first time he has stepped behind the camera as a director.
Even more of a risk for Disney was the subject itself. A movie about man’s innate aversion to things that creep in the night — a film alive with hundreds of eight-legged bugs — presents a delicate marketing challenge. ”That’s our biggest potential problem,” says coproducer Richard Vane. ”People hear that it’s about spiders and it’s the last movie they want to see.”
Actually, the movie is pretty tame stuff. Compared with the bone-crunching brutality and ultraviolence that characterize many of this summer’s heavy action movies, such as Total Recall, Robocop 2, and Another 48 HRS., Arachnophobia‘s portrayal of on-screen gore is practically pacifistic. Except for spilling a few tasteful drops of blood, the movie’s killer spiders are remarkably subtle and often funny in the ways they pursue their human victims. One spider attack in a shower stall, for instance, is an obvious comic nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho. There are also wry references to The Birds, Willard, and Jaws.
”We wanted it to be scary, but not too terrifying,” Marshall says. ”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.”
Part Charlotte’s Web, part Friday the 13th, Arachnophobia has audiences shrieking in anticipation every time an eight-legger trots into view. The movie tells the story of a newly discovered species of spider that surreptitiously creeps inside a coffin and is then shipped from Venezuela to a fictitious California town called Canaima. There, he mates with an ordinary house spider, a rendezvous that hatches an army of deadly hybrid offspring. The litter of newborn spinners quickly begins terrorizing the town, sneaking into toilet bowls, climbing into cereal boxes, popping into bed slippers, sinking their poisonous fangs into any human flesh they can find.
To keep the tone from slipping too far into the horrific, Marshall populated the movie with a quirky collection of off-kilter characters. Daniels stars as the reluctant hero, a young doctor who must overcome his lifelong arachnophobia — the fear of spiders — in order to save the town. Kozak (Parenthood) plays his wife, and Goodman (Roseanne) is the town’s ace exterminator. There’s also an assortment of oddball character actors: Stuart Pankin as the town’s bullying sheriff, Henry Jones as a bumbling old doctor, and Roy Brocksmith as an iron-stomach mortician.
Of course, Arachnophobia‘s true stars are its arthropod villains, and Marshall was every bit as careful in casting them. Big Bob was selected first, chosen from Reptile Rentals (a Los Angeles service specializing in unusual animals) because of his size and ferocious expression. He was made to look even more dangerous with a few special effects: Purple markings were painted on his back and a strap-on abdomen was used to give him greater bulk. Later, Marshall held a ”spider Olympics” to chose which breed should play Big Bob’s baby brood. After testing half a dozen varieties of spider — including wolf spiders, huntsman spiders, and Peruvian tarantulas — for their climbing skills, speed, surface suction, and a variety of other talents, Marshall finally chose the New Zealand Delena, a three-inch-wide genus with especially keen abilities.
Marshall has worked with critters before — he was in charge of snakes and rats on the Indiana Jones films — but this latest menagerie posed some unique challenges. ”A rodent you can train,” he explains, ”but spiders just do what they want to do. It takes a lot of patience. You just have to keep shooting over and over again until they accidentally give you what you want.”
It was difficult for the actors as well, many of whom were understandably jittery about costarring with large, hairy bugs. In fact, during the casting of the film, several prospective leads walked off the auditions when they learned they would be working with spiders. ”They’re not as bad as rodents, but they’re pretty creepy,” says Kozak. Marshall is sympathetic to such concerns: ”There’s something universally terrifying about spiders,” he says. ”They spark this prehistoric reflex in all of us.”
To keep that inherent reflex from frightening away too many ticket buyers, the producers have been careful to pitch the film with the accent on humor. The newspaper and magazine ads (”Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude”), the TV spots (with clips of Goodman hamming it up as the ”Bugs-Be-Gone” exterminator), and the unfortunate new promotional coinage (”a Thrill-omedy”) are all designed to defuse people’s squeamishness and play up the laughs. ”We’re packaging it as a comedy,” says Vane. ”If we sold it as a horror movie, nobody would go. It would just sound too terrifying.”
Some Disney executives wanted to go so far as to change the film’s name to make it seem even less scary and less intimidating. Along Came a Spider was one suggestion. “There’s this theory that if people can’t pronounce the title, they won’t go to the movie,” explains Vane. “There was the same suggestion with Poltergeist — but look what happened with that movie.”
Meanwhile, back on the set, Big Bob has finally stirred from his nap. “As soon as the spider is set, we roll,” shouts Marshall, as the cast and crew snap to attention. “This is the last time I work with insects,” he says, stepping up to a camera. “Next time it’s humans only.” That’s what someone must have said about the shark movie. — With additional reporting by Benjamin Svetkey