Jeff Daniels gives Little Miss Muffet a run for her tuffet in "Arachnophobia," a cobweb-covered "thrill-omedy" spun by Steven Spielberg and Disney studios. An adventure that moves from luxuriant Venezuela to sleepy coastal California, it concerns one man's search for an elusive spider, a Raiders of the Lost Arachnid, if you will.
Executive Producer Frank Marshall, a constant Spielberg collaborator, makes his directorial debut in this genial horror movie, a sweet infestation that creeps and crawls but wouldn't scare anybody. It's "Jaws" without the chomp and "Birds" without the beak, a return to the spoofy scares of the '50s drive-in movies. The formula: A hapless small-town hero finds himself facing an invasion of frogs, zombies, tomatoes or, in this case, spiders.
Daniels is hapless, wheyfaced, even bland as Ross Jennings, a frustrated San Francisco physician who moves, for the good of his family, to bucolic, ocean-kissed Canaima. The Jenningses' dream of friendly neighbors and a thriving practice quickly fades when the resident doctor (curmudgeonly Henry Jones) reneges on his promise to retire. And then Jennings's first few patients meet sudden and mysterious demises.
Unbeknown to Canaimans, a South American spider (the enigmatic Big Bob), the Moby Dick of bugdom, hitchhikes to town in the coffin of a native son and moves into Jennings's barn. Though the spider was earlier found to have no sex organs, he mates with a local, which hatches a brood. Smaller, but by no means itsy-bitsy, the spiders spread out and start poisoning various townspeople.
When neither the town exterminator (John Goodman) nor a noted entomologist can save the day, Jennings, an arachnophobe, must overcome his fears in a cathartic climax: While overhead a slimy egg case throbs, 200 live and mechanical spiders hurry toward his pant leg. Perhaps only other arachnophobes can appreciate the terror of the moment that means to, but doesn't quite, trigger primal fears.
Spiders are so squashable. And of course, it doesn't help that Daniels, as the colorless Jennings, is as charismatic as a tongue depressor. As a compromise between spoof and thriller, "Arachnophobia" needs a twitchier center -- Goodman as the Dirty Harry of pest control would have done, but his is only a recurring cameo. Since most of the characters are spider food, they tend to be expendable, obnoxious or rude.
This is Disney's idea of a fright fest -- about as threatening as "Jaws" with Flipper in the title role.
Arachnophobia, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.