Times have most certainly changed since the days when trip-wires were used to bring down, maim, and kill horses in movies. Today, all animals, birds, fish, even insects and arachnids, are treated with extreme care. The 1990 movie Arachnophobia is proof of this. Not one spider was even harmed (much less killed) throughout the making of this film. Their safety was of paramount importance at all times. For example, there is one scene in which the pest exterminator, McLintock, (John Goodman) is required to spray an arachnid with insecticide and the crush it with his boot. First, a dummy spider was sprayed; then the actor’s boot, complete with a hollowed out sole, padded with sponge rubber, was used for the ‘squash’; thereby allowing the real spider to be curled up inside, safe and sound and awaiting the next take! The crushing sound was achieved by someone stepping on a couple of potato chips. Only fake or mechanical spiders were electrocuted or burned. Even the white mouse supposedly injected with spider venom was not harmed. A retractable needle was used.
Jeff Daniels in Arachnophobia (1990)
The small spiders used in the picture were of the species Avondale, (Delena Cancerides), a harmless species brought in from New Zealand. They look quite fierce but are, in fact, docile members of the crab-spider family and completely harmless to humans. The giant spider used in the movie, however, was a bird-eating tarantula. It can grow to be eight inches across and, if not handled carefully, can deliver a nasty bite. A fifteen-inch mechanical version (dubbed ‘Big Bob’ after fellow director Robert Zemeckis) was created for the picture. A prosthetic abdomen was added to give ‘Big Bob’ more bulk. Whenever dead spiders were needed, bodies of arachnids that had died of natural causes were used. Dead animals seen in spider-webs were all fakes. Whenever the exterminator sprayed real spiders – it was with water only and care was even taken not to get them too wet. When a spider goes down a drain it is a fake drain and the creature is quickly removed from the water. It scarcely warrants mentioning, but the dead raven was also a fake.
John Goodman as the pest exterminator
Interestingly, the reason common arachnids (and other creatures that use an exoskeleton) do not grow to the size of houses is because they would collapse under their own weight. If one was to drop a tarantula a distance of more than two feet it would shatter! So, the scene in which spiders fell from a tree at least one hundred feet tall is wildly inaccurate. None of them would have survived. Spiders cannot be trained so an entomologist devised ways of having them move in certain directions. Vibrating wires were placed strategically because they would not walk over them. Nor would they walk over Lemon Wedge Furniture Wax.
It may or may not have had anything to do with Steven Spielberg being one of the producers of Arachnophobia, but the picture shares several similarities with his production of Jaws (1975). Like Chief Brody in that movie, Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family are new to the community. Jennings’ theories about spider bites, just like Brody’s regarding shark attacks, are at first dismissed. Brody has a fear of water; Jennings a fear of spiders. McLintock, the exterminator, is this picture’s Quint, and Dr Atherton (Julien Sands) fills the Matt Hooper role played in Jaws by Richard Dreyfuss.
One gets the feeling that the makers of Anaconda (1997) must have been impressed by the screaming, squealing Queen Spider in Arachnophobia, for it seems they could not wait to incorporate screams and squeals into their big snake. I am no expert on arachnids and reptiles, but I am pretty certain that neither screams as it launches an attack! Clearly, in both movies, these sounds were added for dramatic effect. Personally, I thought they were hilarious. Perhaps, they were inserted for comedic effect? In Arachnophobia, Dr Sam Metcalf gets bitten on the foot by the killer spider, yet he is able to tell his wife that he is having a seizure. Were that truly the case he would be incapable of speaking at all.
DOWN PERISCOPE (1995)
This is one of those silly, nonsensical service comedies, most of which rarely work. This one does work, however, simply because the principal players deliver. Kelsey Grammer is very likeable (if not entirely believable) as Lt. Commander Tom Dodge. He is given command of an obsolete diesel US submarine (the ‘Stingray’) with instructions to simulate an attack on a couple of dummy vessels in Norfolk Harbour. In order to do so he has to outwit the entire US Navy, nuclear submarines and all. Rear Admiral Yancy Graham (played by Bruce Dern) hand-picks the ‘Stingray’s’ ‘crew from hell’, just to make the operation nigh on impossible to complete. Ridiculous, I know, but it is a pretty ridiculous movie, all things considered, but one of those where it pays to ignore the outrageous aspects and simply go along for the ride.
Kelsey Grammer & Lauren Holly
There has to be a female in the cast, of course, so Graham manages to alter the recruitment rules and assign Lt. Emily Lake, Diving Officer, to Dodge’s command. She is played by Lauren Holly and she has one of my favourite scenes. When the ‘Stingray’ needs to slide between the screws of a super-tanker to avoid detection, she takes control of the precarious operation: ‘All back one-third’, she orders. ‘Right full rudder! All ahead two-thirds! Rudder amidships! Zero bubble, steady course 270. Balls to the wall, boys!’ Well, I found the moment memorable!
The diesel submarine used in the movie is the USS Pampanito, a WW2 sub launched in July 1943. She completed six war patrols from 1944 to 1945, sinking or severely damaging ten ships, and today is anchored at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 45 in San Francisco. An estimated 100,000 visitors a year inspect this floating museum. There are numerous errors of protocol, saluting, uniforms etc, in Down Periscope, but any film that boasts the services of supporting actors of the calibre of Harry Dean Stanton, Rip Torn, Bruce Dern and William H. Macy can be expected to survive a few minor glitches here and there.