Cobweb Is All Things You’ve Seen Before

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like Cobweb wouldn’t exist.

Cobweb is the kind of horror film that wears its inspirations on its sleeve. This is not a bad thing—it is, I would argue, often welcome: many films that do the same go on to become classics. And Cobweb indeed draws heavily from past horror classics. Director Samuel Bodin and screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin draw heavily from James Wan and films like Insidious and Malignant, as well as older horror classics like Carrie, among others. This is a good set of influences! One might hope it helps produce something that takes what it draws from and builds on it with new, interesting ideas or concepts. But that’s where Cobweb fails.

Cobweb stars Woody Norman as Peter, a young boy who is haunted by strange sounds and a voice in the night coming from his bedroom walls. His parents, played by Antony Starr and Lizzy Caplan, want Peter to ignore them and make them go away. But as they come back to visit Peter every night, his relationship with the strange voice evolves, and his parents might be hiding something very sinister from him.

Image from COBWEB. Shows a boy and his father standing in a garden full of smashed and blighted pumpkins.
Peter (Norman) and his father Mark (Starr). Image Courtesy: Lionsgate

The cast is, thus, relatively small. Norman, Caplan, and Starr make up most of the film, but Cleopatra Coleman also appears as Peter’s very concerned substitute teacher. There is not much to really say or unpack about Cobweb‘s characters; they simply aren’t very interesting. Peter certainly isn’t; the film doesn’t bother to give him any interests or sense of personality for Norman to work off of. His father is basically the same, and Starr is given precious little to do despite being such an important character. He brings here the creepy, off-putting energy that he is such an expert at, but it isn’t enough to make his character interesting.

Caplan’s performance is another story, and she is a wonderful bright spot in the film. She takes the character of Peter’s mother, written relatively flatly and certainly doomed to be boring in the hands of a lesser actor, and injects life, energy, and complexity into it. She rattles back and forth between warm & loving and cold, defensive, & angry. It’s this emotional range that makes Cobweb, dare I say, that much more interesting to revisit knowing what is to be later revealed and shown. It’s this kind of complexity and subtlety that is sorely lacking in the rest of the cast. Caplan is simply performing on another level.

It’s tragic, then, that Cobweb‘s script didn’t have any real vision for the characters of the parents. The parents are, without saying too much, not what they seem, but they’re of course written to direct the audience to think of them in a certain way. This is done, though, at the expense of giving them depth, or personality, the things that gives characters, you know, character. 

As a cinematic experience, Cobweb is mercifully short, but it still seems to drag. There is, of course,  little character work to really be done, and the escalation of the film’s horror seems to happen in the blink of an eye before it shows its hand and peters out. It’s the telltale sign of a script with precious little to say or do when a film feels so much longer than it is despite clocking in at less than ninety minutes. This feels mostly true about Cobweb. Characters go through very little in the seventy or so minutes before the film’s big climax such that if it happened perhaps thirty minutes into the film, characters’ actions would have made just as much sense.

There are shades of competence and creativity in Cobweb. For one, Bodin and cinematographer Philip Lozano make great use of shadow and light. The naturalistic lighting during nighttime scenes in Peter’s house create some delightfully creepy atmosphere. The team behind the film clearly had a vision and an eye for mood that does help elevate the film in some of its moments of quiet tension.

Image from COBWEB. Shows a boy standing on a staircase surrounded by shadows of his parents.
Cobweb has some very nice visual work with hard light and shadow. Image Courtesy: Lionsgate

It’s these shades of a good movie, as well as its clear inspirations, that make Cobweb such a frustrating film to watch. There is clear talent here, with the proven cast in front of the camera and Bodin behind it. But it is all in service of a script that takes it nowhere, taking surface-level ideas from its inspirations but never really following through on what makes those films interesting or special to begin with. Cobweb thus feels like frustratingly less than the sum of its parts.

Written by Chris Duncan

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