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Arachnophobia Blu-ray Disc Review - Updated

Arachnophobia (1990) movie poster Arachnophobia

Theatrical Release: July 20, 1990 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: PG-13 / Songs List

Director: Frank Marshall / Writers: Don Jakoby (story & screenplay), Wesley Strick (screenplay), Al Williams (story)

Cast: Jeff Daniels (Dr. Ross Jennings), Harley Jane Kozak (Molly Jennings), John Goodman (Delbert McClintock), Julian Sands (Dr. James Atherton), Stuart Pankin (Sheriff Lloyd Parsons), Brian McNamara (Chris Collins), Mark L. Taylor (Jerry Manley), Henry Jones (Dr. Sam Metcalf), Peter Jason (Henry Beechwood), James Handy (Milton Briggs), Roy Brocksmith (Irv Kendall), Kathy Kinney (Blaire Kendall), Mary Carver (Margaret Hollins), Garette Patrick Ratliff (Tommy Jennings), Marlene Katz (Shelley Jennings), Jane Marla Robbins (Edna Beechwood), Theo Schwartz (Bunny Beechwood), Cori Wellins (Becky Beechwood), Chance Boyer (Bobby Beechwood), Brandy (Brandy Beechwood), Frances Bay (Evelyn Metcalf), Lois de Banzie (Henrietta Manley), Warren Rice (Dick Manley), Juan Fernαndez (Miguel Higueras - uncredited)

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The marketing materials for Arachnophobia (1990) repeatedly refer to it as a "thrillomedy", as if it is inventing a new genre. The might be true if Alfred Hitchcock had no sense of humor and if the 1980s hadn't existed, giving us films like An American Werewolf in London and Gremlins just a few years earlier. While Arachnophobia did not open a new chapter in the history of filmmaking, it did add a sterling example of a horror comedy.

The film opens with essentially a two-reel prequel in a self-contained, 16-minute sequence set in Venezuela. American photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) arrives late and under the weather to document the findings of preeminent British insect specialist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands). The rough exotic terrain and endless sources of danger put Manley off, but it is a large spider that bites and immediately kills him.

Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) and Dr. Atherton (Julian Sands) discover a new spider species in the film's Venezuelan opening/ New town doctor Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) has a paralyzing fear of spiders.

We journey with the body, into whose plain pine coffin the deadly specimen sneaks, to the small town of Canaima, California, where Ross Jennings (an affable Jeff Daniels in a rare bit of pre-title billing), his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak), and their two young children have just moved from San Francisco.
It is a change of pace for the city family and one they question when Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), the man Ross is to replace as the town doctor, decides he isn't yet ready to retire.

Suddenly, Ross finds himself with just a single patient, friendly sexagenarian neighbor Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), who happens to be in perfect health. And yet, Margaret dies just hours after throwing a welcome party for Ross and his family. We know the culprit and it isn't the heart attack that Dr. Metcalf concludes. Killer spiders begin claiming more lives, starting with a player on the high school football team that Ross just cleared.

The unlikely source of the fatalities eludes suspicion for some time, until arachnophobic Ross and those now dubious of his seemingly ludicrous theories recognize the problem on Canaima's hands and contact Dr. Atherton for his expertise.

Just about everything in Arachnophobia works well. The appealing small town flavor benefits from finely-cast supporting players, like Stuart Pankin as the outsider-averted sheriff and Roy Brocksmith as the mortician who inexplicably munches in the presence of corpses. Shooting this alongside the second season of "Roseanne", John Goodman steals scenes as Delbert McClintock, the town's odd exterminator. Every minute the character spends onscreen is a delight; it's one of the funniest performances I've encountered. Recognizing this, the film gives Delbert an heroic introduction, complete with his own distinctive score theme, and relishes his every appearance, which do not begin until halfway in.

Syfy original movies have shown us that it is incredibly easy to do a creature feature wrong. But Arachnophobia gets it all right, utilizing real spiders everywhere it can to strong effect. If you're like me, you need little incentive to fear and loathe spiders. Still, the movie doesn't exploit its concept or overplay its hand, letting the fast and easily-missed nature of the species unsettle you and holding you captive with even the possible threat of a creepy-crawly sighting.

Steven Spielberg executive-produced this film, which marked the feature directorial debut of his longtime and still regular producer Frank Marshall, who had directed second unit for such Amblin Entertainment adventures as Back to the Future and the Indiana Jones series. Marshall does an excellent job, hiding any indication that he is a first-time helmer. He seems to prefer producing, though, as he's only directed three feature films in the decades since: Alive, Congo, and Eight Below.

Eccentric exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) inspects the Jennings' wine cellar, determining it suffers from bad wood. Ross has to answer to men of Canaima including mortician (Roy Brocksmith), doctor (Henry Jones), and sheriff (Stuart Pankin).

The Spielberg connection and, no matter how minimal, involvement ensure both a masterful tone and technical proficience. Arachnophobia impresses with its production design, of realistic giant webs and precise bug action that can't possibly be faked. Add in some tasteful cinematography (including an amazing helicopter shot introducing us to Canaima) from Sweden's Mikael Solomon, fresh off Spielberg's Always and James Cameron's The Abyss, and a winning score by Trevor Jones and you wind up with a first-class piece of entertainment. Though it doesn't deserve the connotation, you might even call it a popcorn film, although one scene involving "Wheel of Fortune" will have you craving anything else. Besides that snack, the movie also makes impeccable use of "Family Ties", for no obvious reason.

In 1990, I saw three movies in theaters with my grandfather: Dick Tracy, Home Alone, and, in between them, Arachnophobia. I'm still not remotely clear what compelled me to see this PG-13 thriller,
but I do remember my not quite second grade self being quite terrified by it and understandably so. Nonetheless, late one Saturday afternoon ten years later, I caught the movie on TV and enjoyed it a lot. Maturity mixed with memories of childhood fright made it a potent experience and I've been a big fan ever since. I clearly recall a glorious viewing of the film on the Saturday before the September 11th terrorist attacks, after which I remember such innocent recreation seeming impossible for at least a little while.

Nonetheless, I have been able to go back and enjoy Arachnophobia, while wishing it had gotten a better DVD release. That apparently might never happen, but beginning Tuesday (update: Tuesday, September 25th, that is) the film will be available to own in a superior Blu-ray Disc.

Random Postscript: It's interesting that a film as relatively well-known as this one (whose respectable $53.2 million gross is the equivalent of $101 M today) is the subject of such an easily-verified error on IMDb. Because the actress who plays Brandy Beechwood is credited only as "Brandy", singer/actress Brandy Norwood has come to be attributed with the part, her "first", a good several years before she took to television and the music industry (and well before she dropped her surname). Unless an 11-year-old Brandy was such a good actress that she managed to convincingly portray a white girl, it's an error, yet one that is all over the Internet and somehow uncorrected on IMDb, which currently classifies it as an uncredited performance.

Arachnophobia Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: September 25, 2012 (was originally September 4, 2012)
Suggested Retail Price: $20.00
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available on DVD ($9.99 SRP; June 15, 1999)
Previously released on VHS (March 6, 1991)

RECALL and DELAY - UPDATED

On August 31st, the day I wrote the bulk of this review, it was announced that this Arachnophobia Blu-ray would be delayed from its scheduled September 4th release date to September 25th, because some review discs had encoding issues that were not up to quality standards. This is the first recall of finished product I've seen from Disney in a decade of covering their home video output. It's especially strange that it would come on a live-action catalog Blu-ray unlikely to hit six-figure sales anytime soon.

A second review copy arrived yesterday, September 21. I've closely studied the packaging and can find no differences whatsoever to distinguish the pressings by case. With a BD-ROM drive, however, you can confirm that the discs are not identical in content. The recalled first pressing uses 29.2 GB of disc space, and the newer one occupies just 28.7 GB. In the BDMV/STREAM folder where you find the disc's video, each disc contains 46 files. On each disc, all but one of the files gives a date modified between June 18th and June 20th, 2012. The one exception is 00003.mts, the movie itself. On my first copy, it was 28,447,962 KB in size and last modified June 20, 2012. On my second copy, it is 27,906,594 KB and last modified September 5, 2012. I am both surprised and impressed that Disney could and would be able to strike a new presentation that quickly and still get it to me before the new street date.

A televised Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) doesn't stand a chance against an "Arachnophobia" spider. (Recalled original pressing) A televised Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) doesn't stand a chance against an "Arachnophobia" spider. (Second pressing)
Left: The recalled original Blu-ray, lacking in contrast. Right: The same frame is darker on the corrected Blu-ray.

VIDEO and AUDIO - UPDATED

Arachnophobia's DVD was one of the most unsightly big studio efforts I ever bought, its non-anamorphic transfer just not looking very good at all. Blu-ray improves upon that a lot and with this second printing, I am satisfied. My main problem with my first review copy was that the colors were pale, undersaturated and lacking contrast. Astonishingly, that has been corrected in the 3-week turnaround time.

The quick fix seems to have come at a cost, though, as edges appear to have been enhanced, with once smooth lines now looking jaggedy. Still, if a little on the dark side, the new results are much better. Blacks are no longer just gray. And there isn't the feeling of watching the movie through a filter. The element remains clean and boasts reasonable detail (you'll even spot a string attached to a spider as it crawls along a shower curtain rod!). At last, this looks the part of a $31 million-budget Steven Spielberg production. There's room for improvement, but this is good enough for most likely being the film's only release on the format.

Set in a wine cellar, the climax pits arachnophobe (Jeff Daniels) against arachnids. Set in a wine cellar, the climax pits arachnophobe (Jeff Daniels) against arachnids.
Left: The recalled original Blu-ray, lacking in contrast. Right: The same shot is darker on the corrected Blu-ray.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack and a noticeable step up from the DVD's mislabeled 4.0 Dolby Surround mix. There are a few scenes where Trevor Jones' score really flares from all directions to nice effect. Dialogue is crisp and intelligible throughout. And the film gains two dubs and three foreign language subtitle streams in addition to the obligatory English SDH subs.

A spider wrangler fills a wall with more than a dozen of the creatures needed for a climatic house scene. Arachnophobia's theatrical tagline -- Eight legs, two fangs, and an attitude -- makes it to the Blu-ray Disc cover art.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Arachnophobia is a rarity among Disney's 2012 catalog Blu-ray output, because it actually gains some extras over its DVD. In standard definition, the film was joined by a single production featurette and an original trailer.

Both of those are preserved here, still in standard definition. The highly promotional short (2:48) adds narration, B-roll, and remarks from a psychologist and director Frank Marshall to trailer-ready clips. Though not mentioned on the case, the trailer (2:05) is also intact, looking and feeling so very 1990.

In between those, we get two new inclusions in the same vein.

First-time director Frank Marshall has a spider on his shoulder. The Arachnophobia cast and crew take shelter from Venezuela rains.

"Frank Marshall Featurette" (3:10) is a slightly more extended (but still highly promotional) making-of, with more on using real spiders and additional looks at production. (Spot the misspelled title on the clapper!)

"Venezuela Sequence" (1:29) looks at the filming of the prologue with behind-the-scenes footage
and Marshall comments on the South American region's challenging conditions.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, the half-hour TV special "Thrills, Chills & Spiders: The Making of Arachnophobia" does not surface here.

The disc opens with trailers for Frankenweenie and Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, followed by an anti-smoking truth spot. The menu's Sneak Peeks listing repeats the trailers before playing promos for The Avengers, ABC first season dramas, "Castle": The Complete Fourth Season, and still more ABC dramas.

The scored menu gives us an up-close look at John Alvin's tasteful poster art, the only imagery with which the film has ever been released, although oddly the spider has been removed (as it was for the VHS and DVD covers, but not this Blu-ray's). Par for the studio, the disc does not resume, support bookmarks, or feature a full-color label. The ordinary Blu-ray case is not joined by insert, slipcover, or reverse side artwork.

Bugs-B-Gone in the presence of Delbert McClintock (an hilarious John Goodman).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While my perception of Arachnophobia is no doubt shaped by childhood nostalgia, it objectively strikes me as simply a really fun and well-made horror movie. It may be a bit much for a 7-year-old to take on the big screen, but older kids and adults ought to enjoy the laughs and thrills this offers.

Unsurprisingly, the Blu-ray is a pretty standard affair. The addition of two new making-of shorts, no matter how brief and trivial, is pretty sweet. And though imperfect, the feature presentation still easily represents the movie's best to date. I would recommend seeing and buying this disc to anyone. It might just make your Halloween night.

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Teen Wolf • Cujo • North by Northwest • Child's Play • Zombieland • The Faculty

Arachnophobia Songs List (in order of use): Frank Sinatra - "Summer Wind", Sara Hickman - "Blue Eyes Are Sensitive to the Light", Pat Metheny - "Goin' Ahead", Tony Bennett - "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", Jimmy Buffett - "Don't Bug Me"

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Reviewed August 31, 2012 / Updated September 22, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1990 Hollywood Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, 20012 Hollywood Pictures Home Entertainment.
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