COBWEB Review: Whatever You Do, Don't Listen to the Voices in the Walls
Cobweb, a supernaturally-inflected, psychological horror film from director Samuel Bodin (Marianne), making his feature-length debut, and screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2022), a 2018 Black List nominee, should be on the “must-see” list of any horror fan, serious, casual, or otherwise.
It starts with a tap, tap, tap on a wall, then a whisper, a voice behind a wall, and frayed wallpaper, peeling to reveal someone or something behind the same wall. Whether that tapping, the voice, or even the frayed wallpaper are “real” or the fevered, overactive imagination of Cobweb’s central character, Peter (Woody Norman, C’mon C’mon), remains an intriguingly open question for most of Cobweb’s brief, 88-minute running time.
For the first hour, Cobweb steadily unfolds as a standard, if well-crafted, genre entry centered on Peter, an introspective, bullied preteen suffering from terrifyingly familiar night terrors (sleep paralysis), and his experiences both at home, where his parents, Carol (Lizzy Caplan, Fatal Attraction, Cloverfield) and Mark (Antony Starr, The Boys), save on their electricity bill by keeping the lights low or off and the curtains perpetually drawn.
At Peter’s elementary school, he faces the vicious taunts and occasional beatings from an obnoxious, unredeemable bully, Brian (Luke Busey), dedicated to making Peter’s already sad, lonely life completely miserable. Brian’s behavior, however, brings Peter and his plight to the attention of a new substitute teacher, Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman). (Apparently, Miss Devine has no first name unless “Miss” somehow counts as a first name.)
As Miss Devine begins to believe something sinister, nefarious, or even malignant haunts Peter in and out of his waking life, his parents become increasingly over-protective and paranoid, hoping to convince Peter of the physically perilous world that exists outside the confines of their home, specifically the unsolved disappearance of a neighborhood girl several years earlier. But even as Carol and Mark’s behavior tips irrevocably into irrationality and possibly a direct danger to the son they claim they want to protect, the plaintive voice behind the wall becomes increasingly persistent, pleading for Peter’s help.
Centering Cobweb on Peter and his fearful, anxiety-ridden point-of-view and not, say, his neurotic parents or his overly concerned teacher, puts the film squarely in fairy or folk tale territory. With the adults around him presenting real and imagined dangers, a house seemingly larger on the inside than it is on the outside (echoing Peter’s overactive, distorted imagination), and the insistent voice behind the wall, Cobweb evokes the ur-text of “stranger danger” in Western literature, Hansel & Gretel, and at least structurally or idea-wise, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Bad Ronald, and The People Under the Stairs, among many other similarly themed, ideologically driven films.
As the deliberately paced slow-build of the first and second acts gives way to a wildly implausible, if not outright impossible by real-world, objective standards, but no less welcome, third act , reminiscent of last year’s surprise horror hit, Barbarian, or 2021’s masterful supernatural giallo, Malignant, narrative logic becomes secondary or even tertiary to the shocks, surprises, and scares Devlin and Bodin confidently deliver at a furious, unrelenting pace over the last 20 or 30 minutes. They require, however, a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief from horror audiences, and a willingness to look past any number of real-world questions and simply embrace the lunacy contained in Devlin’s tightly wound script.
Working from Philip Lozano’s inky, shadow-stained cinematography and Alan Gilmore’s off-kilter production design (too-small doors, outsized household objects, muted, oppressive color palette), Bodin crafts an efficient, effectively chilling dive into preteen horror. It's made all the more effective by a more than game cast, who each in turn fully understand their individual assignments, Caplan playing edgy and anxious one moment, loving and compassionate for another, Starr underplaying his role (until he doesn’t), and Coleman providing an essential emotional anchor to Norman’s persuasive performance as a child haunted by terrors, both human and (possibly) inhuman.
Cobweb opens in movie theaters today (Friday, July 21, 2023), via Lionsgate. Visit the official site for more information.
- Samuel Bodin
- Chris Thomas Devlin
- Lizzy Caplan
- Antony Starr
- Cleopatra Coleman