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ARACHNOPHOBIA – Trevor Jones

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Arachnophobia was one of the most fun comedy-horror films of the early 1990s, which played on one of the most prevalent human fears: spiders. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film starred Jeff Daniels as Ross Jennings, the town doctor in an idyllic California coastal community. Things begin to go awry in the town when the desiccated corpse of Jerry Manley (Mark L. Lester), a local nature photographer, is brought to the funeral home for autopsy; Jerry had died while on an assignment deep in the jungles of Venezuela, accompanying entomologist Dr James Atherton (Julian Sands) on a trip to discover and study rare spiders. It quickly becomes apparent that Jerry died of a spider bite, and that the venomous arachnid hitched a ride in his coffin. Before long the entire community is under siege from thousands of deadly eight-legged invaders, and it’s up to Jennings, his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak), and local exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman), to stop the infestation.

The score for Arachnophobia was by the UK-based South African composer Trevor Jones, who after spending several years as a stalwart of the British film industry, and writing scores like Excalibur, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, was making significant in-roads in establishing himself in Hollywood. Jones has long been known for his soaring main themes – he had already contributed such to scores like Nate and Hayes, The Last Place on Earth, and of course The Dark Crystal, and would go on to greater recognition with the likes of The Last of the Mohicans, Cliffhanger, and Dark City, among many others – so it should come as no surprise to learn that Arachnophobia contains a similar beauty. As presented in the “Main Title,” Jones’s theme is a soaring and adventurous piece with a sweeping main melody that leaps and darts between brass and strings, features a wonderful interlude for Spanish guitars and solo trumpets to accentuate the opening sequence’s Venezuelan setting, and is accompanied throughout by tropical jungle drums and flighty exotic woodwind accents. The prominent counterpoint, which swirls about underneath the main melodic line, is similarly impressive, with the entire thing leaving a wholly positive impression. However, the main theme actually isn’t present as much as one would imagine in the body of the score proper, with Jones keeping statements to a bare minimum, and instead mostly hinting at the rhythmic core of the piece to give the score a cohesiveness.

Two other recurring themes have their moments in the sun. After a few moments of build-up for moody strings and low woodwinds, “The Casket Arrives” introduces the theme for Canaima, the idyllic California coastal town that gets overrun by the arachnid invaders. Jones paints a portrait of the town with pretty picture-book perfection, using woodwinds and acoustic guitars, and a homespun harmonica. Cleverly, as the cue develops, Jones oscillates between the Main Theme and the Canaima theme, using the same orchestrations for both melodies, subtly indicating that the danger of the first has now infected the second. The other recurring theme is “Delbert’s Theme,” a jovial motif for John Goodman’s exterminator character, who is much braver and much more accomplished at his job than his beer gut and rambling conversation style would have you believe. Jones’s theme for Delbert is anchored by an all-star trio of Hollywood session instrumentalist legends, with Tommy Morgan’s harmonica, Tom Scott’s saxophone, and Mike Lang’s jazz piano combining humorously atop a bed of tapped contemporary percussion.

The rest of the score, as one would imagine, is mostly suspense and tension, as Jones creates an uneasy mood that pushes the listener closer to the feeling of the terrible creepy-crawlies at the center of the film. To capture the sensation of eight bristly little legs skittering through the score Jones uses various light plucked and struck textures – pizzicato strings, harp glissandi, tapped chimes, and other metallic percussion items, and the like – to depict movement. These are embedded deeply into cues featuring lots of dark orchestral textures – tremolo strings, low passages for bassoons and English horns, brass clusters – as well as some electronically enhanced textures that give the score a different sonic color. Some of these middle album cues do tend to be a little anonymous, and may feel a little repetitive and monotonous to those who prefer more vibrant orchestral histrionics, but Jones succeeds at creating a mood of edgy nervousness, where you don’t know from where the potential threat is coming.

A couple of these mid-album cues do offer some interesting moments. The end of “Photus Manlii” features pulsating textures that move between muted brass and shrill woodwinds to underscore the moment where Manley meets his new arachnid name sake – and his maker. “Molly’s Web,” “Under the Bleachers,” “Bugs B Gone,” and the extended “Canaima Nightmare” all make use of interesting fluttering woodwind ideas and elongated string writing, which combine to make the various encounters with the spiders deeply unsettling. “Spider Lamp Shade” contains some clear, if somewhat deconstructed, allusions to the main theme that are appealing. “Along Came A Spider” features an unusual lament for chimes, strings, and harp, that is almost a little bittersweet, as well as a brief reprise of the ethnic woodwind writing heard in the main title.

A second and final prominent statement of the Canaima Theme appears in “Life in the Country,” before the score’s big action conclusion in “The Cellar,” a wonderfully over-the-top piece of brass flamboyance that underscores the final confrontation between Jennings and the nightmarish spider queen in the basement of his own house. Jones gives the score a throbbing, powerful finale filled with blaring horns, swirling strings, and rapped snares, that should really be much too ostentatious for the context, but nevertheless sounds wonderful, and gives the final shot of arachnid flambé a touch of the grand guignol. The “End Title” is a superb final statement of the main theme, lush and elegant, and filled with relieved strings.

The release reviewed above is the European version of the soundtrack, which fans of Jones’s music should seek out as the best presentation of it all. The more widely-available North American release contains more songs, and less score; only the cues “Main Title,” “The Casket Arrives,” “Delbert’s Theme,” “Canaima Nightmare,” “Along Came A Spider,” “The Cellar,” and the “End Title” are common to both albums, but the American version does feature five cues not found on the European release, although none of them are more than a minute long. Of those, only one or two are actually noteworthy; “Miller’s Demise” briefly reprises some material from the main theme, “Delbert Squishes the Spider” revisits Delbert’s theme, and “Web Photo” has some spooky string-and-electronic material that is effectively creepy.

The American album also contains a little-known Diane Warren song, “Caught In Your Web (Swear To Your Heart)” performed by Russell Hitchcock, plus a couple of covers of songs by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and John Entwistle of The Who, and the Tony Bennett standard “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”. Unfortunately, the album also suffers greatly from the plague that inflicted several Trevor Jones scores of the period – dreaded dialogue excerpts from the film that bleed through onto every score track, for which the album producer should be wrapped in a spider cocoon and left in a dark corner to think about what he’s done.

Overall, Arachnophobia contains around 15-20 minutes of outstanding Trevor Jones goodness, with the “Main Title,” “Delbert’s Theme,” the action finale in “The Cellar,” and the “End Title” standing head and shoulders above the rest for their wonderful thematic writing, powerful action material, and sense of lighthearted fun. The rest of the score is, necessarily, more subdued, and more interested in suspense and light horror textures; while this writing is still good, and offers some interesting colors and timbres, it is less ear-catching than the cues mentioned above, and may cause some listeners with short attention spans to lose focus. Personally, I like it all a great deal, and consider the main title theme to be one of Jones’s career best. Just make sure that you find a copy of the European soundtrack release rather than the North American one, because the careless placement of dialogue excerpts, and the inclusion of a number of irrelevant songs at the expense of more score, almost ruins the whole thing.

Buy the Arachnophobia soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • EUROPEAN RELEASE
  • Main Title (5:39)
  • Photus Manlii (2:24)
  • Bob Hitches A Ride (4:19)
  • The Casket Arrives (1:54)
  • Blue Eyes Are Sensitive to The Light (written by Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly, and Marta ‘Martika’ Marrero, performed by Sara Hickman) (5:06)
  • Molly’s Web (3:31)
  • Spider Lamp Shade (1:55)
  • Delbert’s Theme (2:33)
  • Under The Bleachers (2:06)
  • Along Came A Spider (2:26)
  • Bugs “B” Gone (3:05)
  • Canaima Nightmare (3:47)
  • Life In The Country (0:57)
  • The Cellar (1:18)
  • End Title (3:55)
  • Don’t Bug Me (written by Jimmy Buffett, Mike Utley, and Jay Oliver, performed by Jimmy Buffet) (3:28)
  • Arachnophobia (written and performed by Brent Hutchins) (4:49)
  • AMERICAN RELEASE
  • Blue Eyes Are Sensitive to The Light (written by Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly, and Marta ‘Martika’ Marrero, performed by Sara Hickman) (5:06)
  • Atherton’s Terrarium (0:21)
  • Arachnophobia (written and performed by Brent Hutchins) (4:49)
  • Miller’s Demise (0:37)
  • Spiders and Snakes (written by Jim Stafford and David Bellamy, performed by The Party) (3:40)
  • Offspring (0:51)
  • Boris the Spider (written by John Entwistle, performed by Pleasure Thieves) (2:59)
  • Delbert Squishes the Spider (0:49)
  • Spider and the Fly (written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, performed by The Poorboys) (2:52)
  • Web Photo (0:26)
  • Caught In Your Web (Swear To Your Heart) (written by Diane Warren, performed by Russell Hitchcock) (4:28)
  • Main Title (5:36)
  • Don’t Bug Me (written by Jimmy Buffett, Mike Utley, and Jay Oliver, performed by Jimmy Buffet) (3:28)
  • The Casket Arrives (1:55)
  • Delbert’s Theme (2:04)
  • Canaima Nightmare (6:21)
  • Along Came A Spider (2:37)
  • Cellar Theme (1:20)
  • End Title (3:54)
  • I Left My Heart In San Francisco (written by George C. Cory and Douglass Cross, performed by Tony Bennett) (3:02)

Running Time: 53 minutes 10 seconds — European
Running Time: 57 minutes 50 seconds — USA

Hollywood Records HWD-467991-2 (1990) — European
Hollywood Records 60974-3 (1990) — USA

Music composed by Trevor Jones. Conducted by Shirley Walker. Orchestrations by Lawrence Ashmore, Shirley Walker and Guy Dagul. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Thomas A. Carlson. Album produced by Trevor Jones.

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