Credit: Vlad Cioplea
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

Cobweb — Samuel Bodin

July 21, 2023

It’s the week leading up to Halloween and a child wakes in the middle of the night, having been roused by an unexpected, unsettling sound. They search out the darkness of their bedroom for the source of the noise, but find nothing. The noise persists, a tapping coming from inside the walls, and they scream out. Their parents are alerted and, half-asleep themselves, stumble in to investigate, finding nothing out of sorts. The child is told it was just a nightmare or that they’re suffering from an overactive imagination, but we know better. 

So goes the setup for Cobweb, the debut feature from director Samuel Bodin, but also a thousand other horror films including The Boogeyman, released earlier this summer. It’s the most boilerplate of scenarios and does little to inspire excitement for what awaits the viewer; although in horror, perhaps more than any other genre, the story is merely a wireframe to build upon. What sense of showmanship or perverse commentary might a skillful filmmaker impose upon something as common as “what goes bump in the night?” And it’s there, even more than its overly familiar premise, that Cobweb truly faceplants. The film is an unimaginative, visually muddy film that shoves 80% of its plot into the final 25 minutes, this after twiddling its thumbs for an hour all while telegraphing its intentions through its spectacularly misjudged performances.

The child here is Peter (Woody Norman, who appeared opposite Joaquin Phoenix in C’mon, C’mon), a tween tormented by bullies at school and friendless for reasons we’re left to infer. His new substitute teacher, Miss Divine (Infinity Pool’s Cleopatra Coleman), has taken a shine to him but, recognizes the boy is troubled, signaled by the upsetting drawings he makes in class. Peter lives with his parents in a creaky old house on a street where seemingly neither neighbors nor sunlight exists, and it’s fair to say something seems “off” about both mother, Carol (Lizzy Caplan), and father, Mark (Antony Starr). Carol is overly emphatic yet perpetually haunted, with Caplan delivering most of her lines in a wide-eyed, shotgun whisper that gives way to a halting yelp while Mark is chipper to the point of appearing deranged (familiar to anyone who’s seen the meme of Starr’s The Boys character, Homelander, grinning maniacally). With performances this mannered, one is conditioned to view them as either clumsy misdirection or anticipating the revelation that they are really bug-people wearing skin suits (à la Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black). And yet, in Cobweb, regrettably neither is the case.

There’s clearly something amiss in the house, and whatever’s tapping on Peter’s walls might be the least of it. Peter has never been allowed to go trick-or-treating, we’re told because years earlier a young girl from the neighborhood disappeared on Halloween, an event that suspiciously traumatizes Carol a decade later. There’s the concealed door behind the refrigerator leading to the basement, wherein a chain is fastened to the ground (which Mark isn’t above using when punishing Peter) and a cage is built deep into the cement foundation. And when Miss Divine stops by the house to check in on Peter, she’s greeted by Mark, who doesn’t realize he’s bleeding profusely from his forearm and is menacingly carrying around a hammer. So when the thing visiting Peter at night starts talking to him through the wall in the voice of a sweet little girl, warning him that mom and dad are evil and encouraging Peter to dig around in the garden behind the house to find proof, well, wheels that were already turning in our heads start spinning into overdrive.

The direction the film goes from here is best left unsaid, although it all raises more questions than it answers, not least of all why Carol and Mark appear genuinely skeptical of Peter’s claims of hearing something inside the walls. But for much of its brief runtime, Cobweb functions as a slow-burn, haunted house film with a mystery at its center, before turning into something else around the two-thirds mark. Or, more specifically, a lot of different things, none of which are tonally congruous or especially satisfying. The film becomes a hodgepodge of moldy tropes, styles, and converging storylines, including inexplicably becoming a home invasion thriller (complete with the assailants wearing cartoonish masks, what with it being Halloween and all) as well as a J-Horror-inspired monster movie. However, either as a concession to the budget or a concerted stylistic choice, Bodin and D.P. Philip Lozano have underlit the film, casting its climactic sequences and more ghoulish-looking prosthetics in impenetrable shadows. It all but dares the viewer to make out what’s supposed to be happening, and then exacerbates the issue by editing the film as if it were a feeding frenzy. At a certain point, viewers are likely to abandon the instinct to lean in to try and get a better view of what’s happening and simply throw their hands up in frustration. 

When a film doesn’t work, it’s invariably the fault of the director, and yet this is one of those instances where one can pinpoint specific choices made that undermine its already modest chances for success. Both Caplan and Starr are capable of giving naturalistic, modulated performances (Caplan in particular is almost always a welcome presence in any cast), and so one must conclude they were directed to embody their roles in a way that calls this much attention to the acting, sailing past stylized in their uncanniness and coming across almost addled. It pulls focus from everything else happening and all but demands a wowza of an explanation to retroactively justify it, which Cobweb is simply incapable of delivering. Yes, there’s a reason mom and dad are acting strange, but everything here is straining toward Adjani and Neill Possession levels of baroqueness, and nothing else in the film seems designed to support that weight.

DIRECTOR: Samuel Bodin;  CAST: Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman;  DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate;  IN THEATERS: July 21;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 28 min.