Cobweb is a quintessential eerie title for a horror film. It has innocent and adolescent-friendly connotations while also evoking gothic images and thoughts of dusty abandoned houses and spiders stalking just beyond one’s peripheral vision. It has a ring that plays to gentler horror while tapping into the dark origins of fairytales for an adult instead of a young audience.
The family home in Cobweb is tired and worn on the outside, but on the inside, it’s pleasant enough. That is, except for the noises inside eight-year-old Peter’s bedroom walls (Woody Norman). His mother, Carol (Lizzy Caplan), tells him he has an active imagination. His father, Mark (Antony Starr), makes a father-son project out of the boy’s fears – using rat poison to kill the pests responsible for triggering his son’s imagination.
Eventually, the knocking on his wall sound is replaced by a little girl’s voice, encouraging Peter to stand up to the bully in his class. When he does, he is expelled. It doesn’t stop his teacher, Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman), from coming to his home to check on him, but her concerns are rebuffed by his parents. As the girl’s voice becomes a dominant presence in his life, Peter begins to suspect that his parents are guilty of a terrible secret.
Cobweb director Samuel Bodin and writer Chris Thomas Devlin tease the audience’s expectations. How much restraint will the filmmakers exercise in blackening the family drama with the violence and suspense of the horror? There is the potential for the horror to lend the drama an unnerving feel. or for the horror to gradually creep out of the drama’s shadow before overwhelming the film. Some of Bodin’s choices surprise, especially the latter segue into the home invasion sub-genre. Unfortunately, it isn’t only the family’s tragic secrets that wind up creeping out, but the misunderstood story that’s stitched together like a reanimated cadaver in a horror movie.
Cobweb begins with the young boy being woken by the mysterious sounds. Bodin and Devlin waste no time establishing the horror at the heart of their story. At school, Peter paints pictures that Miss Devine interprets as a cry for help – from whatever is inside his bedroom walls or the bullies who delight in tormenting him. Peter is that archetypal shy and unfortunate soul who isn’t built to survive the cruel world. He’s the type of person the genre has never grown tired of, not out of malice, but the need for an innocent to be preyed upon.
Early on, Cobweb progresses effectively, pulling back the curtains on the domestic and claustrophobic anxiety that exists not only within the house’s walls. Starr’s performance is near-faultless, except that he fails to trick us – we expect the personality twist. This doesn’t undermine the experience. Instead, there’s delight in anticipating his darker side that eventually reveals itself.
What undermines the experience is the handling of the story once it comes time to descend deeper into the second act. Cobweb feels laboured, the rigorous plotting robbing it of energy, while the impatience of forcing the segue into a new sub-genre compromises the credibility of the storytelling. The segue lacks the patience and understanding of how to lead into it. Much of the film compares to an orchestra playing flat notes and out of rhythm. Bodin and Devlin are too eager to move on before digging into the story as a hall of mirrors regarding who we think these characters are.
Starr and Caplan subjugate Cobweb to the shadows of their captivating performances. Carol is defined by movement, opposite Mark’s stillness, or steady rhythm. He moves and talks with a methodical intent that contrasts with Carol’s nervousness – the weight of a secret taking its toll. Her movements sometimes compare to a marionette puppet’s jagged and jittery jerkiness, contrasting with her swiftly decisive and fluid motion as she walks through the house. As a former teacher, she effectively combines the roles of the mother and the headmistress, piquing the audience’s curiosity as to whether we should like, dislike, sympathise, or pity her.
Bodin and Devlin also introduce an intriguing power dynamic between the couple that is abandoned or left undeveloped. To invest in their relationship and the secrets that bind them may have rejected a later playful twist, but it would have tidied up Cobweb‘s overall story. The filmmakers allow themselves to become lost in genre tropes that eventually force a tactical retreat, ending the film abruptly when they seemingly realise they’re missing a satisfying ending.
Allegedly inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story from 1843, “The Tell-Tale Heart“, one might imagine the writer turning in his grave. Bodin and Devlin set out with an effective reimagining of Poe’s original premise, notably an innocent child haunted by sounds in the walls, instead of the guilty man hearing the beating heart beneath the floorboards. While Cobweb shows early signs of promise, it eventually begins to unravel. The filmmakers find themselves out of their depth, lacking the patience or wherewithal to evolve their hybrid-genre story.
While Peter hears noises and a voice from inside the walls, if we listen closely enough, we can hear the anguished whispers of a stronger story trapped within the confines of a weaker one. Starr and Caplan’s performances are Cobweb’s redemption. The actors acquit themselves of any culpability in thwarting what could and should have been a crowd-pleaser. Dragged down by an obvious mediocrity, Cobweb will not share the enduring legacy of Poe’s classic work of literature, from which it draws inspiration. Instead, it leaves its audience feeling frustrated at what could have been.
Cobweb had its International Premiere at London FrightFest 2023. It was released on 1 September 2023 in the UK courtesy of Lionsgate.