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"Arachnophobia" means fear of spiders. I ought to know, because I've got it -- but then, so do most people (and therein lies the current movie's pulp genius).

My arachnophobia isn't as bad as my old summer camp friend Noel's herpetophobia. One good look at a king garter snake nestled around the neck of Frank, the nature counselor, was enough to send poor Noel trembling, whimpering and altogether hysterical into a clothes cubby for an hour. I've never seen fear quite like it.

I don't feel quite that way about spiders. In fact, when the film's "spider wrangler" (yes, that's what they're called) flipped Big Bob, the movie's star tarantula, onto a nearby tablecloth recently in Florida, I was able to understand that from the beauty-of-creation angle, there was even something weirdly beautiful about him.

Still, that's because his keeper was handy and ready to scoop him up into the nearest Tupperware. If I had encountered, by accident on my rug, a bird-eating tarantula as large as a salad plate, I might have turned into my poor, mega-phobic friend Noel. But then, odds are, so would you.

That's what makes us all so vulnerable to a creepy-crawly festival like Frank Marshall's "Arachnophobia." In a movie season devoted to heavily hyped schlock pomp created for the sole purpose of generating nine-figure box office revenues, "Arachnophobia" is lovably disposable -- an amiable, shuddery piece of junk guaranteed to have movie audiences grabbing each other in fright for a few minutes and then remembering fondly and laughingly thereafter.

In other words, it's "Poltergeist" with spiders -- the jaunty exploitation of a primal fear. Because this is the maiden voyage of Steven Spielberg cohorts Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy without their formidably talented leader, it isn't quite as visually snazzy or as gracefully directed as it would have been if the boss had been hanging around.

Still, it's every bit as jolly and junky and scary as it wants to be.

This is the one about the malevolent hitherto-unknown Venezuelan vampire spider who knocks off a member of a scientific expedition, hitches a ride back to California in his coffin and then mates with the local eight-leggers in the fellow's final resting place.

The resultant species has unusually large fangs and venom that could drop a rhino. "Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude," as the ad line rather majestically has it.

Unbeknownst to the earnest young doctor (Jeff Daniels) who has come to replace the small town's "country doctor from hell" (Henry Jones), the super-spider and its zillions of nestlings have taken up prime residence in the young fellow's barn. From there, they scurry off into all directions, dropping in on people in the shower, at bedtime, etc. (You get the idea. The Hitchcock homages here come thick and furious.)

After much difficulty, the young Doc convenes some heavyweight scientific spider mavens and enlists the aid of the (literally) heavyweight local exterminator.

The local bug man is played with broad comic relish and cartoon buffoonery by the redoubtable John Goodman, who is just about the best there is at what he does. He is the movie's comic relief and, if you ask me, there ought to have been a lot more of him -- on film, I mean.

Twice the number of Goodman scenes and lines would have suited me fine, in fact.

The requisite comeuppance for the creatures at the end involves a grenade made out of a bottle of Hennessy cognac.

As for my old camp friend Noel, my guess is that, wherever he is these days, he'll give this one a pass. His kids, though, will probably take dates, grope each other in terror, giggle in the ancient ways and have a fine old scary time.


Swarthy South American spiders swarm over small town. Starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. Directed by Frank Marshall.

Rated PG-13; opening today in the Market, Eastern Hills, University and Thruway Mall theaters.

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