PSA: Arachnophobia (1990), or The Haunting And Evocative “Dilbert’s Theme” On The Soundtrack Is My Favorite Part

7 09 2009

Spiders have gotten a bad rep over the many centuries of art and culture. I have to say that, besides snakes, they’re probably the most despised creature around. Everything about them is creepy and crawly, they have no real soft side to speak of, and in a few rare cases, they have actually killed a few people with their venom. Our relationship has been purely business; they get rid of insects, and we in return don’t spray them out of existence. It’s a strained relationship, but it works, although that relationship has never really been assuaged by our almost instinctual fear of them. And that fear was not assuaged by this veritable smear campaign movie that came out at the dawn of the 90s called, ironically, Arachnophobia. It’s an exploitation flick that features a lot of misinformation about spiders that is potentially harmful to the already tenuous relationship with our eight-legged friends. And if it weren’t so damn enjoyable, I’d probably be pissed.

It all takes place in delightful, sunny Canaima, which is located in delightful, sunny California. A body has come back from an expedition into the Amazon with some very dangerous cargo; the spider who killed the man. It’s a rare, never-before seen spider from the heart of South America, and it’s found the perfect home for itself and its babies in small, unassuming Canaima. At nearly the same time, a young doctor and his family has moved from the big city (i.e. San Francisco) to start their practice there. It’s a close-knit community, so it’s hard for him to break in at first. And it doesn’t help that many of his few new patients are dropping like flies from an unknown cause. He has a hunch, but it’ll take some convincing to get people to believe that a constantly rising number of people are being killed by what appears to be spider bites. As the doctor comes to realize the danger the town is in, the spiders begin to mount an assault that might be beyond anyone’s control. With the help of a few eccentric small-town characters and a researcher from South America that was on the original expedition, can he put an end to the spiders’ rampage across Canaima, or is it too late for the podunk paradise?

Jeff Daniels IS Dr. Jennings, the suave young doctor with a penchant for diagnosing spider bite deaths. He is a very likable character, even in the face of his indomitable yuppiness and his smart-ass mouth. He talks down to the residents of idiotic old Canaima, sure, and perhaps he lords his intelligence over them a little bit, but I really didn’t see a problem with it based on the sheer fact that Canaima is inhabited by knuckle-knobs! Fools! Idiotas! I actually enjoyed him looking down on these people, because if you saw them, you would look down on them too. Julian Sands (aka Warlock) plays the researcher who found the spider, and he is about as spacy as you can get. He almost seems like he belongs in a different movie, a British film about radioactive spiders looking for kicks. But I appreciate his strange Britishness, and enjoy seeing the guy from Warlock doing something other than being a bridge from Jeff Daniels to Kevin Bacon in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (a game in which I’m a local champion in).

The real star of this movie though is John Goodman, who gets his funny on for the role of Dilbert the Exterminator. He’s great!!! He’s quirky, he’s hysterical, he’s a small-town dude with a world-savvy philosophy that’s all his own. He’s hands-down the top reason to see this movie. He even has his own theme song for whenever he comes on screen, Torgo-style! It’s a head-bobbing little ditty that has a great harmonica whine on it that will make you say “Geez, the one thing I was missing in my day was this character and THIS song!”

As for the rest of the movie, it’s your standard animal-attack affair. There are a lot, and I mean a LOT of ridiculous deaths. It starts out realistic enough, with spiders crawling into shoes and lamp shades ready to pounce. But by the end, they go on a mindless blood-thirsty assault that seems more mailicious than is tyically plausible for something in the animal kingdom. It does a good job of exploiting our fear of something small and dangerous creeping its way into the nooks and crannies we never check to lay in wait and attack us. It’s a good concept, and one I begrudgingly admire, so it gets a good score from me there.

But Arachnophobia just gets a good score overall, in spite of its slanderous remarks against the arachnid. The feature debut of director Frank Marshall was far from a wash. It’s a horror/thriller/comedy/animal-attacking scenario that has you smiling one minute and checking the insides of your shoes the next. Jeff Daniels plays a good lead, the supporting cast is great, and what more can I say about the legendary Dilbert? It’s a good movie to usher in horror into the 90s, and I’m glad I got the chance to see it again after all these years. I give Arachnophobia 7 1/2 suave British gentlemen out of 10! Thanks again, John Goodman! And thanks to you, Julian Sands, for helping me out in Six Degrees!

Tomorrow I take a look at an NC-17 film again that actually refused to edit itself down! Tomorrow I’ll watch Frontiers! Until then!

Mommie Dearest (1981), or Campy Bitch

7 09 2009

Mommie Dearest is the ultimate Hollywood tell-all movie. It’s a laughably virulent piece of Hollywood dish about Golden Age Hollywood actress Joan Crawford and her strained relationship with her daughter Christina, based on a memoir by the daughter herself. It’s a veritable waking nightmare of Hollywood bitchiness and ├╝ber diva-ness that has infiltrated the popular culture in a big way, especially with gay men and transvestites, whose culture is impacted heavily by Hollywood starlets of the 40s and 50s, with their larger-than-life personalities and their sheer elegance of form and fashion. It’s not a film to be taken too seriously, and I saw this melodrama turn into a comedy at various points, to my delight, but too often the movie skirts the lines between what’s funny, what’s serious, and what’s simply agitating.

It tells the story of Joan Crawford’s later years, through the end of her Holywood career and all the way to her death. The film begins with the starlet pining for a child with her lawyer boyfriend. She is unable to conceive, and wants to adopt, but her application continues to be denied. She asks her man to pull some strings, and after a few pretty pleases, she gets her hands on a beautiful baby girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Things go well at first, but as her career in Hollywood hits a decline and her relationship with Mr. Sexy Lawyer begins to crumble, her mental stability begins to deteriorate. She begins to lash out at everyone around her, especially her daughter. She grows angrier and angrier, more obsessed with her slipping beauty and household cleanliness and less concerned about her family’s well-being. Her instability grows worse and worse after Sexy Lawyer leaves her, and when long-time studio MGM drops her, will she be able to recover, or is it all down-hill for Joan and her family from there?

This is a very awkward film that seems to pride itself on its own campiness. Faye Dunaway especially blows the fucking fuse on the Dramameter! She chews more scenery than a goat on the set of How Green Was MyValley! From her first scene to the very end, she vamps it up, and if acting were an Olympic event, she would have won a few medals here. But just as a stand-alone film, it hurts the already manic vibe when she goes from realistically angry to Kabuki Theater angry, a habit she displays nearly every 10 minutes.

Not that there’s a plethora of believable drama to be had here. Much like a real Golden Age Hollywood drama, the lines, emotions, and motivations are tweaked to such a point where they are rendered almost unrecognizable as human mannerisms, instead existing as moving parables as large as Mount Olympus and equally as unrelatable. I can’t understand Joan Crawford because she has made every concerted effort to set herself apart from the world, and even in a tell-all dish movie like this, there’s no explaining her violent tendencies and her deep psychoses, so we can only look at them at face value, which is just as shallow and as empty as old Hollywood itself.

And this character IS disturbed. Whether she was close or not to the real Joan Crawford is anyone’s guess, but Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford is a god-damn psycho. The slightest thing sets her off. We all know the infamous wire hanger scene:

From destroying her rose bushes to breaking up her daughter’s bathroom to just plain ol’ beating the shit out of her little girl, Joan is a force of unmitigated fury. She has no real feelings of guilt, only selfish shame and self-pity. It’s an interesting character, just not a comprehensible one.

As for the direction, the movie attempts to keep the soft lighting that dominated much of Hollywood throughout the 50s, and on a technical aspect, it looks pretty good. The direction by Frank Perry is anything but brilliant, but you can hardly say he botched the job. Subtlety is not one of his strong points, I’ll just say that. The music is as large as the era in which the movie takes place, and the score by Henry Mancini is on par with most of his other works. I expected no less from the man, but it’s worth noting that the score for Mommie Dearest really does feel like an entity unto itself at times. It keeps you interested in these oblique Hollywood types and all the drama that surrounds them. If I was to recommend one aspect of this film, it would be Mancini’s contributions.

But all in all, it’s not really worth a solid 2 hours of your time. Go watch Valley of the Dolls if you want some real campy cinema that packs a punch, or ANYTHING by John Waters. This is really just a Hollywood tell-all that struck a chord because of its frankness and its shocking (if not entirely reliable) source. It’s nothing special; not terrible, just nothing special. What really stands out is Mancini’s soulful score and Faye Dunaway’s amazingly over-the-top performance. I’m not sure whether history will remember Dunaway’s performance as credible or atrocious, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed, simple as that. So all in all, I give Mommie Dearest 5 wire hangers out of 10.

Stay tuned for my review later today for Arachnophobia! Until then!

(On a side note, does anyone know why it is called Mommie Dearest instead of Mommy Dearest? Is that a colloquialism or simply improper spelling? Or am I the pnly person that gives a shit? Either way, let me know!)