Spielberg invades Bayonne

Spiders, Sharks and Spielberg

If Harry & the Hendersons is - as suggested in an earlier essay - a less sophisticated remake of ET with a slightly taller main character, then the 1990 film Arachnophobia is a less sophisticated remake of Jaws - but instead of one main character in the title role we get a swarm.

As pointed out frequently in my essays, Steven Spielberg has a remarkably recognizable fingerprint when he comes to film. Even if he chooses not to take credit for directing a film (for whatever reasons he might have), he can hardly hide the huge influence he has on the final product.

And his fingerprints are all over Arachnophobia in his use of camera angles to how he frames his shots.

From the opening credits, you see touches that have appeared and will appear in upcoming epics such as War of the Worlds.

His use of patterned water and elevated helicopter shots are so familiar from Jurassic Park that these in Arachnophobia could have been shot with the later film in mind. Even the big hole into which the bug hunter descends seems to foreshadow the scenes in which the dinosaur experts arrive, going into the hole by helicopter instead of by foot as they do in this film. In fact, Spielberg has a tendency to include inside jokes in most of his films, and this film has one character in the descending sequence asked if the exploration crew would be eaten by dinosaurs - suggesting Spielberg had in mind the later film.

One most obvious signature piece of evident in many Spielberg films is the use of smoke to enhance a scene - especially in scenes filmed in the woods. We see it in films from ET to Temple of Doom, and we get plenty of it in Arachnophobia, from the Jurassic Park like scenes in the beginning to the more ordinary world filling in the woods behind houses, and then again especially inside the barn where the male from the jungle mates with the more common spider to begin the horror show.

The low camera angle used in this film as if to imitate the view of a cat, dog or spider comes straight out of ET - although Spielberg out does himself with one clever use of point of view when we get a scene shot from the point of view of a doll (which is an allusion to some film I can't remember off hand). This low camera work is enhanced by fleeing pets and even a remote control toy car.

Another fingerprint shows up with Spielberg's use of framing shots. In one scene inside a tent, Spielberg manages to isolate three characters - one in the foreground, one with the use of the tent pole and the third with the tent opening. He uses a similar technique in War of the Worlds in van scenes where the windows serve a similar purpose. Another great frame shot used in Arachnophobia comes when the man looked into the basement with the camera looking up from below - a visual foreshadowing of what will happen as well as a magnificent shot. Spielberg uses a similar shot in War of the Worlds to frame the Tom Cruise character near the back porch in the yard scenes with the backdrop of the Bayonne Bridge.

The most obvious Spielberg touch comes with the title and the character, depicting a man whose obsessive fear of spiders disables him and the tale depends upon his overcoming that fear in order to resolve the conflict. We see such obsessive fear again and again in Spielberg movies in varying degrees from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jaws.

Jaws, in fact, has so many close parallels to Arachnophobia that you can possibly call Arachnophobia a remake of Jaws in much the same way you might say Harry in the Hendersons is a remake of ET. This, of course, posses some curious questions about what we might expect from War of the Worlds. Will we get another Jurassic Park or Poltergeist?

In Jaws, you have a sheriff moving out of the hostile city to take up a new if boring life in a small sea side resort town.

In Arachnophobia, you have a doctor moving to a small town to escape the fast paced life style of the big city.

The fact that one moves from New York City to an island off the New England Coast and the other from San Francisco to a small town in California matters less than the fact that both are authority figures who are seen as outsiders.

Both the sheriff and the doctor are married with children. Both seek to begin a new less complicated life in rural America. Both have an obsessive fear. The sheriff fears water. The doctor fears spiders. Both move to an environment that is certain to bring them into contact with what they fear most. In both cases, what they eventually encounter is far worse than their worst fears could have imagined. One must face the open jaws of a killer shark; the other, the off spring of a killer spider from South America.

Both characters have taken a big risk in changing their lives. Both wives have sacrificed a life in the city in order to support the choice their husbands made.

In both films, we have a vision of a perfect world outside the city that is suddenly turned into a den of horror - when a force of great and evil intent invades, causing an equally ugly reaction within the community, where instead of facing the real evil, the small town citizens look for a scapegoat and decide that the sheriff and the doctor are to blame in one manner or another.

While no two films of this quality can be totally parallel, these two have so many remarkable similarities that to explain them must go beyond mere coincidence.

Both films begin with death, which is misunderstood or ignored so that the rest of the disastrous events must transpire.

In Jaws, the sheriff has to deal with a misguided mayor who is willing to ignore evidence in order not to risk losing the tourist trade.

In Arachnophobia, you have an equally misguided old doctor who has decided not to retire despite promises to do so.

Both mayor and old doctor are under the mistaken notion that they are helping the community through their acts - although in truth both are putting the community had greater risk.

Both in their own way betray the public trust. The mayor thinks of economics over public safety. The old doctor - who has refused to keep up with modern medicine - refuses to give way to someone who can better serve his patients.

The mayor deliberately misinterprets at best and outright lies at worst about the first shark attack. The doctor - who needs evidence to use against the new doctor in order to support his own greedy decision not to retire - deliberately blames the deaths from spiders on the new doctor's incompetence.

The mayor and doctor both contribute to the stream of misinformation that frustrates an early resolution to the problem, and causes more deaths in the community.

Arachnophobia does not stop there. Not only do we get the two lead characters in the guise of two doctors, we also get their supporting cast - well sort of. The John Goodman character, Dilbert serves a similar function as the fisherman in jaws, though it will be the expert bug doctor - reflecting Spielberg's usual man shouldn't mess around with nature theme - who must die.

Whereas the fisherman's death in Jaws is a tragedy, the Christ-like sacrifice typical of myth (someone must die in order that the world might live), the bug scientist's demise is justice - the bug man tempted fate and helped bring down this holocaust on an otherwise unsuspecting people.

His assistant Chris serves a similar role as the Dreyfus character in Jaws, providing a middle ground between science and those that science are supposed to serve. We find a version of this character in many Spielberg films, such as the mathematician in Jurassic Park, the whiz kids in Poltergeist and the French doctor in Close Encounters.

Arachnophobia is full of typical Spielberg devices. Whereas Jaws had kids with a fake fin swimming along the beach to scare people, we get the good doctor in this film mistaking a coat hook for a spider in the dark. Arachnophobia makes liberal use of dramatic irony - near misses that are avoided by luck or chance, people almost getting bitten but moving out of the way in the nick of time. We see similar scenes in Jaws.

As in Jaws and other Spielberg films, we get the tools we need to beat back the beast early in the film - foreshadowing the conclusion in a way that will seem logical to us. In ET, the earlier scene of the flying bicycle makes the later escape logical. In Jaws, we get plenty of warning that the compressed oxygen containers could explode, and eventually they do when put into the mouth of the shark. In Arachnophobia we get bottles of rare wine in the beginning of the film that will later become the tool by which the hero puts an end to the beast.

Even the rotting wood of beneath the kitchen floor plays a role in the ultimate defeat of the enemy and is part of a prediction made by a character who says "We're lucky the flood didn't fall in," when eventually it will. This serves the same role as the fisherman saying the shark will likely eat the oxygen canister.

The most striking similarity between Arachnophobia and Jaws comes in the concluding conflict. Both heroes become separated from their allies and are forced to do battle not merely against the monster, but against their own fears. The sheriff, who fears water, must battle a man-eating shark from the rigging of a sinking boat. A doctor, whose fear of spiders comes from his in ability as a baby to move when one crawled up his body, must relive that same horror in the darkness of the spider's den. Both heroes rise to the occasion.

You can find plenty of more Spielberg fingerprints in Arachnophobia, such as the rippled pattern of water marking the passing of the boat in the beginning and the later rush across the water as the coffin containing the bug and the body is flown back to America. Each of these scenes has a mate in Jaws.

Yet even beyond these, the film contains many more subtle touched such as the lingering over wine glasses at meals in both films and other ritualistic devices that have come to help define Spielberg's style of filmmaking. There is poetry to some of his links between scenes such as the circle of football players over their fallen comrade leading immediately to the circle of mourners around the grave in which he is being buried.

You can even find the arched pattern that marks the upcoming War of the Worlds is visible in some of the backgrounds of Arachnophobia such as in the ceilings of the bug hunting scientist (this very typical of Citizen Kane) and it is one of those small elements masters of the craft use to help pull the film together. We even get his use of television - a hugely important element in Spielberg films. The appearance of Michael J Foxx on one program in his film is no accident and neither is one of the character's quoting a definition of an extraterrestrial in another TV scene.

Spielberg signed his name to Arachnophobia though content, style and image more firmly than he could ever have done in the film credits.

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