I think that most of us cannot help but love Arachnophobia (1990). It has found a place in the history of horror with its wonderful combination of the ridiculous with the all-too- believable. We laugh at the antics of John Goodman, hilarious as a lumbering exterminator. But, at the same time, we cringe at the football field scene where the unsuspecting jock is bitten and almost instantly killed. The film promotes a not-so-out-there idea of an invasive species taking over the food chain, but tempers it with a flaming spider chasing a full grown man in a basement. There is a feeling of helplessness in Arachnophobia as nature takes over, but it never fully leans into it, opting for a lighter tone that endears it to its audience at the same time that they ask, “What if?” It was this balance of ridiculousness and reality-based horror that helped to create a brand new formula for the creature feature of subgenre.
There is no question in my mind that the success of Jaws eventually led to the evolution of man against nature horror into the comical. Perhaps this turn to humour was in part due to some fatigue over these types of movies. By Jaws: The Revenge, it was getting ridiculous (and not necessarily in a good way). By walking that fine line but never completely crossing over into parody territory, scares and humour blended into a new beast (forgive the pun) that audiences eat up (I swear it’s not on purpose).
A slew of man vs. beast movies became nearly instant classics in the 90s. They managed to have the tone of the ridiculous horror-comic beasts of the 50s (picture “Attack of the 50 foot spiders!!!!”), but with a grounding in some form of human tampering that suggests that the characters (and perhaps we as a society) have become far too greedy and meddlesome when it comes to nature. Nature is a powerful force. I live in a fairly large city, built around a lake and mountains. And every year, idiots leave their garbage out and are shocked when bears find it. We are living in their space, and these movies are a reminder of that that I think we need. It doesn’t matter if the films are ridiculous or that the people always conquer; the suggestion that that might not always be the case is part of some of the scariest scenes in these over-the-top man versus nature tales.
These 90s nature-based creature features almost always feature man meddling with nature to cause said problem. In Arachnophobia, the scientist flies with a photographer to a location in South America that has been untouched by man. The local tribes don’t even want to go there. On a mission to study insects, the first thing that they do is to gas a gorgeous tree, killing the insects in it and collecting them. Unbeknownst to the researchers, a spider hitches a ride to the good old U. S. of A. and quickly causes chaos once it breeds with the local arachnids. A mad scientist in Bats breeds genetically modified bats. People meddle with sharks in the name of medicine in Deep Blue Sea. An old woman feeds her cows to an alligator in Lake Placid, all well and good until it eats her husband. Toxic waste infects crickets, who are collected by a local entomologist who feeds them to his spiders and they grow to the size of a truck in Eight Legged Freaks. Greed results in death by snake in Anaconda (and The Jungle Book (1994), for that matter).
Oddly enough, there is a sense of satisfaction when people get devoured whole in these films. One thing that can be said about this subgenre, love it or hate it, is that there is no shortage of comeuppance; mess with nature and karma in the form of an enormous cockroach will eat you. It seems like justice somehow, mostly because the characters in these movies tend to be pretty one note. You aren’t really invested in any of them, and the villains are so cartoonish that you are rooting for the inevitable (I’m looking at you, Jon Voight’s Anaconda accent).
The interesting thing about these movies is that they often send a message that man cannot control nature, and that attempts to do so are going to blow up in your face. However, the good guys always prevail. Sure, there is plenty of carnage, but not real long term effects. Sometimes, there will be a suggestion of a bug crawling away unscathed, or a suspiciously large fish swimming away, but these are more indicators that a sequel is coming than of long term consequences. We are meant to heed the warning, but not come out of the theater completely bummed.
It is beginning to feel like we are on a new cycle yet again. Fatigue has set in once more, likely due to a swing too far over into Sharknado territory. I mean, I love a wonderfully bad shark movie, but even Roboshark might have been a step too far for me (it tweeted, guys. The shark tweeted). In recent years, we have swung back to the more serious tone, with films such as The Host (2006), Burning Bright, and Crawl.
Personally, I like to mix it up. I’m more a middle ground kind of girl, and Lake Placid ranks up there as one of my favourites. I enjoy a more serious one now and then as long as I am rooting for the characters and it has a great story. All in all, as long as people are getting chomped, I’m game!