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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Arachnophobia Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

Get caught in a web of laughs, thrills and chills with Arachnophobia from legendary producer Steven Spielberg – now available for the first time on Blu-ray, featuring new digital restoration with enhanced picture and sound.  Jeff Daniels and John Goodman star in this creepy comedy, crawling with the perfect mix of fun and fright. Everyone is afraid of something.  But when Dr. Ross Jennings (Daniels) moves his family to a quiet place in the country, the one thing that bugs him most is terrifying everyone in town. For this unlikely hero, overcoming a childhood fear of spiders might just save the day. Enjoy the hair-raising entertainment of Arachnophobia like never before on Blu-ray!





Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The opening of the movie follows the time honored tradition of following the trail of an expedition into the unknown wilds, in this case it’s somewhere in the Amazon jungle where a group of scientists are holed up trying to discover new species of spiders and insects.  The newest arrival to the camp is photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) who had been hired to take pictures of any new discoveries that may occur.  The team, led by the arrogant Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands), travels deep into the jungle and they come across a chasm that has by it’s complete remoteness isolated some insects and spiders that haven’t been seen before.  When they blow smoke up the tree, a ton of spiders and insects drop the ground including a large spider whose species has never been seen before. They take it back to their camp to inspect it but no one sees an even larger version of that kind of spider (later nicknamed the “General”) crawl into Manley’s backpack.  When Manley goes to take a nap later, the “General” sneaks up on him and bites him which causes almost instantaneous death.  Hid body (and accidentally the “General” ) are boxed up in a wooden coffin and shipped to his home-town of Canaima.
When Manley’s body arrives at the funeral home, the mortician Irv Kendell (Roy Brocksmith) doesn’t know the “General” make his escape from the desiccated body that had been completely drained of bodily fluids. A bird catches the “General” but the spider bites the bird and kills it and they fall to the ground near the barn owned by a doctor named Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels).  Jennings and his family have recently transplanted themselves from San Francisco to this small town to get away from living in a big city.  Jennings was supposed to take over the local physician’s clients when he retired, but the cranky old doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones) changed his mind when his replacement showed up which leaves Jennings in a bind.  He has no patients and he has already bought their new house because he was assured that he would be taking over the older man’s practice.
His one and only patient, Margaret Hollings (Mary Carver) a nice older woman who lives nearby is killed by one of the “General’s” offspring which make things even more difficult for Jennings because her death looks like it was caused by Jennings taking her off her heart medication which he didn’t believe she needed.  No one knows that it was from a spider bite until more deaths start occurring thanks to the “General’s” many offspring.  A lot of the townspeople start calling Jennings “Dr. Death” and it gets worse when his worst critic Dr. Metcalf is killed too by a spider.  The difference this time, is that they believe he was bitten by a spider which doesn’t sit well with Jennings because he’s terrified of spiders.  When the county coroner Milton Briggs (James Handy) performs autopsies on the the three people who died mysteriously, he confirms that they were spider bites which eventually leads them back to the spider’s origin and Dr. Atherton.  A team is put together to eliminate the spiders once and for all with Jennings, Dr. Atherton, his assistant Chris Collins (Brian McNamara), Briggs, the dim-witted Sheriff Lloyd Parsons (Stuart Pankin), and most importantly the cocky local exterminator named Delbert (John Goodman).  They discover that Jennings’ barn is ground zero for the spiders and it’s infested with hundreds of spiders so it will be prove to be quite a battle.
Arachnophobia is a fun film but I didn’t enjoy it as much now as I did when I first saw it.  When I was a lot younger, this film seemed like more of a thrill ride but it just didn’t have the same effect on me today.  I can still appreciate the great cast and the fantastic work they did with real spiders and the sense of creepiness that they convey, but the film feels really slight now.  I don’t like all of the big city vs. small town cliches that really come across as anti-small town and it makes the film feel even more dated than it really is.  While I’m not afraid of spiders at all, the film does a nice job of showing just about every possible freaky spider scenario possible.  Afraid of a spider crawling across your naked body while showering?  Check.  Worried that one might be hiding in your shoe just waiting to bite you?  Check. Are you concerned that a vicious spider could be hiding in the bottom of your popcorn bowl ready to bite your greasy fingers?  Yep, this movie has that scenario too.  Probably the worst one was a spider was hiding inside a toilet just waiting for someone to sit down.
So, needless to say, if you are scared of spiders, then you are really not going to enjoy this movie especially towards the end of the film when there’s hundreds of spiders running free in Jennings’ house.  The cast all make this very enjoyable especially Jeff Daniels and John Goodman.  This film marked the directorial debut of longtime Spielberg producer Frank Marshall.  Marshall keeps the tone balanced well between it being both a thriller and a comedy which is always tricky to pull off and to later market to the masses.  In fact, the trailer just labeled this movie a “Thrill-odey” because families weren’t sure if this was a horror film or a comedy.  The use of real spiders really adds a lot to the movie especially in this age of CGI.  If this movie was made today, it would without a doubt be entirely CGI which in some cases can work, but most of the time, it just ends up looking cheesy unless you have a top VFX provider like ILM.  If you enjoyed Spielberg’s earlier Amblin movies like Gremlins or Poltergeist, then you should enjoy this one too as it seems like the last of that studios’ output from that era.

Video (4 out of 5 stars) 

Arachnophobia had an interesting history on home video considering that the 1999 DVD release offered a sub-par video transfer and even it’s Blu-ray debut was postponed when Disney discovered that the initial pressing of the Blu-ray suffered from incorrect black levels.  To their credit, Disney went back and redid the transfer right and was kind enough to alert us of the issue and later to send out the new version for us to review.  This new 1080p (1.85:1) transfer looks much better than both the earlier DVD and the first Blu-ray transfer.  The level of detail has vastly improved and you can now see the spiders in all of their creepy glory as well as some of the tricks used to make the spiders do their thing.  Colors are more true to life than before and the black levels have also been corrected to their appropriate darkness.  There’s still a few cases of digital noise, especially during the final fight between Jennings and the spiders.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

Arachnophobia’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is pretty good but not as outstanding as I kind of expected it to be considering that it’s a Disney release and lately, they’ve been on fire with their high quality presentations on Blu-ray. This mix does the job but not much else and it sounds like  a lot of movies from that era on home video.  The front channels deliver dialogue that is clear and easy to understand and the rear channels offer some low key ambiance that works well with Trevor Jones’ score for the film.  There’s a few instances where the mix comes alive such as the ending fight or when they blew the smoke up the tree and the spiders and insects thud to the ground everywhere, but overall this is simply a decent mix for a film this old that could have been better with a little bit more time and money invested in it.

Extras (2 out of 5 stars) 

My biggest disappointment with this Blu-ray release are these almost non-existent extras that have been ported over from the previous DVD release.  To make matters worse, they are all only around three minutes long and in standard definition.
  • Production Featurette – A brief look at the making of the movie and some thoughts as to why people are scared of spiders by a UCLA professor.
  • Frank Marshall Featurette - If you liked the clips from the previous extra, then you will be sure to like this one too since it’s made up of almost the exact same clips.  This time the focus is on director Frank Marshall and his approach to the film.
  • Venezuela Sequence - A quick look behind the scenes  of their filming in Venezuala, where at that point of time had never been filmed for a movie before.  It’s obvious a very cool location for filming so I’m sure that in the last two decades since this movie came out that other films have taken advantage of the location.
  • Trailer

Summary (3 out of 5 stars) 

Arachnophobia is a fun little movie that offers some laughs and some thrills but could be terrifying for viewers if they are afraid of spiders.  This Blu-ray is well worth a buy if you are a fan of the film since the picture and audio have been greatly improved but unfortunately I can’t say the same thing about the extras.  This is a good example of the kind of family entertainment that Amblin is famous for and it would be a great choice for Halloween viewings.
Order your copy today!

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