The fact that clichés are played with is now almost a cliché itself in horror films. But the scary film COBWEB takes on this task entirely without blinking an eye and creates a scenario that loses all predictability due to its surprising developments and turnarounds and suddenly strikes an unusually dramatic note in the genre.
OT: Cobweb (USA 2023)
That’s what it’s about
Night after night, eight-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) is afraid of eerie knocking noises behind his bedroom wall. His parents Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (Antony Starr) don’t take their son’s fears seriously. He just has a blooming imagination. The boy doesn’t have it easy at school either and is repeatedly bullied by older classmates. He only finds a little support in his dedicated substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman), who senses that something is wrong with Peter – and not just because he paints scary pictures in class… Her attempt to establish access to the parents also fails much like Peters, to finally be heard by them. The situation will escalate very soon…
Recently, the reinterpretation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles caused a positive stir worldwide. It hasn’t been a big hit (yet) – certainly due to the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon. Meanwhile, “Mutant Mayhem” was very well received by critics. So what does the animated adventure about the four mutated martial arts turtles and their mentor Splinter have to do with the horror production “Cobweb” – apart from the fact that both films were able to generate a certain amount of hype in their own bubble? The answer is: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The writing duo, usually known more for comedy productions, served as producers on both films; on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” as screenwriters. And in fact this parallel is surprising only at first glance. At the directing and writing level, Rogen and Goldberg are primarily known for rough “adult comedies” (“Bad Neighbors”, “The Three Kings”, “The Interview”…). As producers, they are now more willing to experiment and have worked on, among other things, Craig Gillespie’s tragicomic miniseries “Pam & Thommy” and the bawdy superhero deconstruction “The Boys”. With their collaboration on “Cobweb”, a completely new genre has now opened up for the two of them – which the two of them know how to master excellently. Maybe also because there is a certain humor in her playing with genre conventions.
The fact that little Peter (Woody Norman) hears knocking in the walls seems to worry his parents less…
The trailer advertises the certainly debatable quality feature that “Cobweb” is from the same producer as “Barbarian” (Roy Lee, not the Rogen-Goldberg combo). A horror film that is notorious for its radical twist halfway through its running time and is available on Disney+ in this country. This kind of cinematic Name dropping is extremely insightful. Not just because the horror fans as the recipients of the trailer with the title “Barbarian” should be able to do a lot. But also because “Cobweb” works in a very similar way. The scenario that appears at the beginning of a little boy who hears eerie noises behind the wall of his children’s room, but whose fears are not taken seriously, is a genre cliché straight out of the book. The still relatively unknown screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” from 2022) doesn’t even make an effort to vary the well-known story beats. Likewise, in his feature film debut, director Samuel Bodin opts for a tried-and-tested dark, black and blue look, never turns on the lights and lets the two parents Carol and Mark routinely recite the standard explanations of old, creaking houses, an exuberant fantasy of their protégé or bad dreams. So everything as always…
“Not too much time passes before accents gradually shift in ‘Cobweb’ that indicate that this scenario is not the one that we as an audience will have to come to terms with in the next hour and a half.”
… or not! Because not too much time passes before the main mechanisms outlined in “Cobweb” shift by nuances. They suggest that this scenario is not the one we as an audience will have to deal with for the next seventy minutes. Devlin cleverly intersperses motifs that increasingly prevent the viewer from assessing the events. While at the beginning the danger for young Peter clearly seems to come from outside – presumably from some supernatural being – it slowly becomes clear that things within the family also cause discomfort; perhaps even stronger than the eerie knocking that soon alternates with a whispering girl’s voice. Once the parents also become a factor of insecurity, locking their son in the basement for misunderstood protection, giving each other dark looks in moments that Peter doesn’t notice, or suddenly appearing with unexplained cuts, memories of “The Black Phone” come back to life. Maybe evil isn’t what we believe, but rather salvation from… yes, from what actually? Everything about “Cobweb” seems otherworldly; the dining table is far too big for the small kitchen, and the roar of the washing machine is disproportionately uncomfortable. And the fact that “Cobweb” is set around Halloween, but the cheerless, pumpkin-strewn garden is not a decoration at all, feels almost ironic.
Peter’s parents as shadows of themselves.
The association with “The Black Phone,” and generally with the youth-centric works of Stephen King, is reinforced by other factors. There is talk of a girl who once disappeared under mysterious circumstances on Halloween. With the exception of the substitute teacher Miss Devine, who is concerned about Peter, no adult appears to have a duty of care. The children deal with the problems on their own and resolve the problems with each other – if necessary with violence. The mood conjured up in “Cobweb” is melancholic, dreary. The knocking in the walls is almost like a change; and its supposed danger is much more abstract than the threat posed by parents who are physically present at all times. Over the course of the quickly narrated hour and a half, all of these elements gradually condense into a larger whole, until what one would probably see in other films emerges from this (spider’s) web of dangers the one evil would describe. Here it is just one of many. As soon as “Cobweb” reveals this, the film itself becomes bigger, brighter, more direct. The final act may be a bit too much fanfare. At the same time, all the sources of the fire are finally colliding with each other – it must inevitably be louder than anything before due to the sheer volume. Furthermore, Samuel Bodin maintains a certain reserve. Evil does manifest itself, but its strongest scenes appear in its shadowy outlines or as a shadowy movement in the dark. His face only appears a few times.
Even before that, but especially in the last third, the acting strengths become apparent, without which “Cobweb” would not have been nearly as impressive. Lizzy Caplan (“The Incredibles 2”) and Antony Starr (“Wish You Were Here”) do not want to be tangible in their roles. Even outside of a particularly hauntingly staged nightmare sequence – one of the scariest things horror cinema has had to offer so far this year – the two seem like shadows of themselves. They act mechanically, almost zombie-like, when dealing with their child and Peter’s teacher. They are thoroughly menacing. The one currently also in “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” Woody Norman, who can be seen, manages to carry “Cobweb” on his narrow shoulders for long stretches. His reserved outsider, Peter, is a bit of a misery most of the time. Only towards the end is he finally allowed to grow beyond himself – and in doing so unexpectedly offends the audience. Norman’s performance can oscillate so subtly between melancholic, paralyzed and rebellious that a great future can be predicted for the newcomer. The film doesn’t just need him because the story demands the character. But because his emotional input shapes the film just as much as the many surprising story twists.
“The mood conjured up in ‘Cobweb’ is melancholic, sad. The knocking in the walls is almost like a change; and its supposed danger is much more abstract than the threat posed by parents who are physically present at all times.”
Conclusion: Beginning like one of umpteen supernatural horror films, “Cobweb” becomes a study in fear and danger moving from the outside in. Thanks to a fantastic ensemble, it not only scores points for its surprise effect, but also for its unexpected emotionality. Stephen King sends his regards.
“Cobweb” was released on VoD in the United Kingdom. A USA start is still pending.