Monday, 18 April 2011

Fantastic Factory #1. Arachnid (Jack Sholder, 2001) DVD Review

Mutant spiders attack in the underrated B-classic Arachnid (2001)

Arachnid is the first film up for review in the Fantastic Factory Presents... Collection, distributed by Arrow Video on April 18th.

As a severe arachnophobic it's really not hard to scare me with spiders. Seriously, my fear is so irrationally great that even a paper-mâché tarantula would give me the creeps. Just the shape of them... the way they crawl... it gets under my skin. So you may think that watching a movie about mutated spiders wouldn't top my priorities list, but this was actually my second viewing of the underrated Factory flick. I first saw Arachnid on VHS about seven years ago and it scared the hell outta me; I had nightmares for months. This was before I knew about Brian Yuzna, Steve Johnson and Jack Sholder, and the legacies they had been involved with. This was long before I became a horror fanatic and sought the unique thrill that only the best of the genre can provide. So it was with interest, excitement and trepidation that I revisited Arachnid, now repackaged for release as part of the Fantastic Factory Presents... Collection, being distributed by the extraordinary Arrow Video company. And it's with great joy that I get to report how well the film holds up to memory, although I admit to having forgotten the prologue where a gooey extraterrestrial, encased in a transparent orb, leads an innocent navy pilot to his death. That was... odd.

Jack Sholder is a smart B-movie director who really understands genre convention and knows how to direct schlocky material. Arachnid may not be perfect, but it is an exciting and efficient creature feature which ranks way above the likes of Spiders (Jones, 2000) and Eight Legged Freaks (Elkayem, 2002), the latter a pretty romping monster homage itself. The reason it stands way above these titles is because it has a small budget and a passionate crew - it understands that horror comes from the heart, not studio checklists concocted from box office formula. Too much mainstream horror is stuck in the realm of the familiar, but old-school shock-meisters like Sholder (who directed the way underrated Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, 1985) know how to get their audience excited with practical, gooey effects and OTT action. Attractive leads don't hurt either, but Chris Potter and Alex Reid actually have some solid acting chops too. Okay, so it's not like watching Pacino and Streep fight off arachnids, but they both have considerable screen presence and chemistry. Potter is your typical slack-jawed hero, but he also has a softer side and you buy into him as both the clichéd tough guy and the vulnerable leader. Reid is really terrific - a master of wounded sarcasm, she shows emotional depth behind her guarded one-liners and kicks serious ass in the finale. I really warmed to her and found her endearing. A true action heroine, it's a shame she didn't become a bigger star. Ravil Isyanov is also fun as the nerdy spider expert Henry Capri.

There is a bit of lame CGI but this is 99% the work of master prosthetic/animatronics designer Steve Johnson, who also created special makeup effects for Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983), Big Trouble In Little China (Carpenter, 1986) and Nightmare On Elm Street: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988). So yeah, he has pedigree and then some, and his work on this feature is outstanding - the spiders look spindly and gruesome, slime dripping from their pincers (darn mutations) as they tower above the puny humans. One terrific dream sequence sees a man transforming into a spider, with the camera stylishly zooming out as the eight legs rip out of his back, and a close-up on his face reveals the multi-eyed beast bursting from his rubbery face. It's awesome, and a sad reminder of the state we've got to with modern effects. The main monster is less scary in close-up than it is darting through the dense jungles (the film was shot in Spain and Mexico), but it's still a spine-chilling sight when chomping on the remains of a doctor or soldier. And of course, as with all great horror movies, sometimes you're rooting for the spider!

It has problems, sure, but this short 'n' slick thrill ride is sure to please genre fans, and the score by Francesc Gener is one of those forgotten gems that horror/sci-fi cinema produces so often but always get overlooked (also see Jerry Goldsmith's work on Leviathan, George P. Cosmatos, 1989). Plot holes don't really matter - the whole alien thing is never explored or even mentioned again but most viewers will have forgotten about it by the cavern-set finale, which features an awesome impaling. The script boasts far more character development than you'd expect, with a genuine sense of character history developing throughout the picture. Our protagonists aren't just cardboard cutouts for dispatching, which is nice to see. Arachnid is a movie made with love and care; a movie made not for money but for audiences. Predictable it may be, but seven years on from my first viewing this B-grade creature feature still has the goods and puts most other entires in its sub-genre to shame. Looks like I'll be having nightmares tonight...

The Disc/Extras
The film is only ten years old so it still looks pretty sharp. The image is clear and DoP Carlos González's work on the lush jungle environments is well served. The extras are brief but solid. As always with Arrow the DVD sleeve has reversible cover art and there's a poster included in the box, along with a mini-booklet featuring an essay by entertainment critic Calum Waddell, entitled 'Spider Man'. It's basically a profile on Jack Sholder which presents him as a genre auteur, a claim I would heartily back up. On the disc you have a customary theatrical trailer but also two documentaries. The first is called 'King Of The Spiders' and it's a 20-minute retrospective with producer Brian Yuzna. He does discuss how the film came together but talks more about the Fantastic Factory label and horror distribution. Horror fans will be well versed in everything he flags up but it's interesting nonetheless, and those less acquainted with the real-life horror of movie distribution will learn a lot. The second documentary is entitled 'Creature Comforts' and it's the highlight of the disc. In this 26-minute interview effects man Steve Johnson talks about his entire career and the prosthetic/animatronics business through the 80s and 90s, and its death in the 00s, as well as revealing, quite emotionally, why he retired from the industry. It's a frank and insightful piece from one of the true masters of practical effects, and horror fans really owe themselves a purchase of Arachnid just for this.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind comments Michael. I sent you review to Steve who is now anticipating the DVD more than ever!! Keep up the great work with your site. Calum Waddell