Dir. Samuel Bodin (2023)
A young boy who hears knocking inside the walls of his house begins to suspect his parents are hiding a secret.
There are more than a few parallels between Samuel Bodin's debut feature Cobweb and Neil Gaiman's chilling and clever fairytale Coraline. Unfortunately, those adjectives are not included in the list. I had heard (almost) nothing but high praise for this film, and I was pretty excited to check it out while knowing literally nothing about the plot save iMDB's plot summary. Unfortunately, this was a relative miss for me, as beautifully crafted as necessary but about as scary as a ham sandwich.
Woody Norman plays a timid and frightful little boy named Peter who is scared of just about everything. His overbearing and overprotective parents (played by Anthony Starr and Lizzy Caplan) do everything within their power to hide him away from the dangers of the world, including preventing him from going trick or treating with his peers. He's bullied at school, repressed at home, and he's not making much progress in either realm. Until he starts hearing knocking on his wall at night, followed by a voice who begins to tell him ways to improve his life and get out from underneath the weight of those who would seek to hold him down. It may or may not belong to his sister, who may or may not have been locked within the walls by his parents before he was born.
While not everything with the film is a complete miss, there isn't quite enough to make it a worthy watch. Cobweb commits the capital horror crime of just being dull through 90% of its runtime. It's all bark, no bite, a film that tries its best to make a story in which almost nothing happens feel exciting through a pounding score and jarring, often-asymmetric cinematography. It almost works at times, though it generally settles for unsettlingly skewed visuals instead of well-founded scares. When the visuals work, however, they work, as in the scene where a knife is silhouetted against a destructed kitchen before its wielder hurtles themselves towards the frightened Peter. There are just too few of these moments to hold the audience's attention until the final third of the film.
Anthony Starr (The Boys) is fantastic in his performance, Lizzy Caplan... not so much. I get where they were trying to go with her character, creating an almost fairy-tale villain of a mother who oscillates between caring and protective parent and unhinged and malevolent shrew. Caplan, for all her talents, couldn't quite pull off the performance, feeling far more histrionic than serious in a role that requires the latter. Woody Norman does a great job in his role, but it's a film that should not have depended on a child to carry the load. Everyone else is pretty forgettable, including Cleopatra Coleman in the eye-rollingly named Mrs. Devine, a substitute teacher who seeks to rescue Peter from his restrictive parents.
The ending of the film, a harsh departure from the first two acts, almost salvages the entire thing. It's mercilessly violent, with the person-who-lives-under-the-stairs making quick work of several children before turning her attention towards Peter. The way-too-dark setting, however, prevents these scenes from having full effect on the audience, feeling more like the budget ran out than something that was trying to be mysterious. Unfortunately, the film as a whole feels like a short that went on way too long, never fully fleshing itself out as a feature and containing such a radical tonal shift near the end that it violates and invalidates its entire setup.
It's creepy, but that's about it. I've seen more legitimate scares on YouTube, and I can't think of a single moment in the film that actually put me on edge. It feels rote, a film that does its best to build up to a thrill but then fails to deliver. It's a poorly executed cross between Harry Potter before he leaves for Hogwarts and a Barbarian that never takes the gloves off, nor does it ever really bother to give a satisfying or realistic explanation of it's fantastical ending. It's Mama without guidance or purpose. It is, in the end, an excellently crafted film... it's just not a very good one.
Who this movie is for: Slow-burn horror fans, Fairytale fanatics, Hidden door manufacturers
Bottom line: Cobweb may not be a failure on every level, but it largely is on the ones that matter. It's competently acted, excellently shot, but overall just drab and unimportant. It doesn't feel like a film you need to see, but it's a film that contains just enough fall spirit that it may be worth a watch before Halloween rolls around. It's streaming for free on Hulu, so you can certainly give it a shot. It may be your cup of tea, but it wasn't mine.