Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The spirits are back in a remake of Poltergeist, the 1982 horror classic produced (and some say ghost-directed) by Steven Spielberg. And so we’re recommending some of our favorite “Spielberg imitations,” some involving the blockbuster maestro himself.
Of all the official and unofficial disciples Steven Spielberg has inspired over the years, Frank Marshall was arguably the most qualified to mimic the master’s moves. After all, he cofounded Amblin, the studio that released many of Spielberg’s most iconic pictures, and served as executive producer on several of those movies, including the Indiana Jones series. And yet Marshall’s career as a director never quite took off, despite the fact that his first film, the creepy-crawly crowdpleaser Arachnophobia, suggested a talent for the kind of bright, brisk genre entertainment that made his regular collaborator the most commercially successful filmmaker in the world. At the very least, Marshall could have done well with some of the blockbuster gigs scored by fellow Spielberg protégé Joe Johnston.
Billed as a “thrill-omedy,” mostly because the marketing team wasn’t sure whether to play up its horror or comedy elements, Arachnophobia is a fun, self-aware throwback to the small-town creature features of the 1950s. Shortly after moving his family to a sleepy California community, Dr. Ross Jennings (a young Jeff Daniels) begins investigating a rash of sudden, inexplicable deaths. The culprit: a new species of Venezuelan arachnid that’s mated with a common house spider, creating an army of tiny, super-poisonous offspring. As in Gremlins—another Spielbergian horror hit that would have made a fine addition to this Watch This series—there’s a black-comic pleasure in seeing death and chaos creep its way into a setting so archetypically cozy and wholesome. (In a nice twist on urban-to-rural cliché, it’s the interloper, the big-city doctor, who teaches these country folk a thing or two.)
Jaws is the other obvious touchstone, what with Jennings fighting local authority—namely, the stubborn old town doctor, who won’t sign off on autopsies—to protect the citizens from a rampaging animal threat. The film even completes the Amity Beach trifecta by teaming Daniels’ Chief Brody surrogate with a Hooper-like scientist (Julian Sands) and a Quintian exterminator (John Goodman). But whereas Spielberg’s shark was frightening in its sheer enormity, Arachnophobia generates suspense through opposite means; many of the movie’s set pieces revolve around a menace so tiny that characters fail to notice it, blithely moving their feet in and out of the spiders’ range. (“We gonna need a different way out of here,” someone says, in a clever reworking of the most famous line in Jaws.) Were Spielberg himself directing as well as producing, the movie might have provoked more than a mild case of the willies. On the other hand, those afflicted with the titular anxiety will spend the week after studying every shadow on their bedroom wall.
Availability: Arachnophobia is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.