Cobweb (2023 American film)

COBWEB (2023 American film) is not to be confused with COBWEB (2023 South Korean film directed by Kim Jee-woon). Totally different thing. This is a new horror movie that wafted briefly through theaters during the OppBarbenheimerie era, came out on disc a few weeks ago, now is on Hulu. I knew nothing about it except that some people had said it was good, and that served me well. It’s a pretty simple story that benefits from a sense of unfolding mystery, so I’ll try to tread lightly for a bit and then warn you when it’s time to start stomping.

One reason to review it right away: it’s a Halloween movie. It’s set in the week leading up to the holiday, there’s a field of pumpkins outside the house that most of it takes place in, there’s a crucial pumpkin-smashing incident. So it’s good for the season.

The movie’s center of gravity is located in the big cartoonish eyes of put-upon 8-year-old Peter (Woody Norman, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER). They betray a mixture of sadness, fear, and disbelief that his life keeps being this bad. At school every day he’s bullied by a smarmy blond shitbag named Brian, who keeps threatening to beat him up during recess. (A funny surprise on the end credits is that Brian is played by one Luke Busey. Holy shit – of course that kid is a Busey. Carrying on the family business. But I guess he’s Jake’s half-brother, not a third generation.)

After school Peter sits uncomfortably with his weirdo mom (Lizzy Caplan, ALLIED) and dad (Antony Starr, GUY RITCHIE’S THE COVENANT), who try hard to seem wholesome and supportive but get really weird about certain things, like when he says he wants to trick-or-treat this year. They act like it’s an outrageous request and don’t even claim some religious reason, they just tell him a scary story about a girl disappearing in the neighborhood on Halloween.

But his nights are the hardest part. He keeps hearing sounds in the walls. He knocks, and gets a response. Eventually he hears a voice calling to him by name. He runs to his parents and they take a look but tell him it’s his imagination, or the house settling, or rats. But we know it’s none of those things because we know it’s a horror movie. When he gets up the guts to talk to her the voice says that her name is Sarah, that she’s his sister, and that he can’t trust their parents.

I really love the vivid look that first-time feature director Samuel Bodin, cinematographer Philip Lozano (THE CREW, BLOOD MACHINES) and production designer Alan Gilmore (CRAWL, THE POPE’S EXORCIST) have created here. The colors and textures of the house and the very controlled camera moves and rotations create a heightened, quirky feel. The frequent presence of the parents’ shadows looming over Peter bring to mind a cartoon.

At the same time, keeping the camera so close on this kid puts you in such a child’s perspective that the bullying becomes very stressful and then the parents’ unhinged behavior threatens to be too much.

Unfortunately they get set off by nice substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman, INFINITY POOL) noticing something wrong with Peter and stopping by to talk to his mom. Oh, and also due to some trouble at school. He gets expelled after the voice in the wall encourages him to stand up to Brian, leading to one of those horror movie moments that’s so awful it becomes funny.

So dad switches from creepy-eyed fake nice guy to yelling lunatic, but also the movie switches from sort-of-like-the-real-world to out-and-out Grimm’s fairy tale. Dad says that Peter is grounded, tells Mom to lock him in the basement, so she moves the refrigerator to reveal a tiny door behind it, which she unlocks using keys on a retractable key holder clipped to her belt like she’s been waiting for this eventuality. They lock him in this secret dungeon, where he has a view down a metal grate into a mysterious, even more subterranean chamber. That might become relevant later.

After a while (days?) Mom lets him out and presents him with holiday-themed cupcakes – “pumpkins for our pumpkin” – as if that makes it okay. He tells them he loves them. Then Sarah talks to him again. She tells him he’s now big enough to help her get out. Peter’s story is occasionally intercut with Miss Devine’s – the only person who seems to care about him, though she keeps being told to mind her own business. She tries to check on him, knowing she’s going out on a limb, but the parents’ strange behavior makes her even more worried. We’re torn between rooting for her to save Peter and for her to stay the fuck away for her own safety.

To continue I gotta share with you some BIG SPOILERS about a twist and the last act. Peter pulls a perfectly set up, quite disturbing maneuver to get his parents out of the way and free his sister. But when his mom screams with her last breath “Don’t let her out!” it serves as a reveal (or confirmation of suspicions) that Sarah really is locked up for everyone’s safety. The last stretch of COBWEB is a cool, absurd monster movie where big sister shows her true colors crawling on walls and ceilings like a spider, scratching and biting and somehow turning people into splatter. And we’re treated to the tittering discomfort of her crossing paths with some asshole kids who deserve the worst, but not this.

I have to hold back the praise slightly because of the ending. It has a climax, and it resolves what it needs to, it works, but to me it feels a little abrupt, like it should go a little further, a little bigger, before wrapping up. Still, the more I think about the movie the more I like it. We mostly see Sarah as a very long J-horror-esque mane dragging around on the floor, but when we do see her face clearly it’s such an absurd monster you have to wonder how those two humans managed to give birth to that thing, and since we’re dealing with fairy tale world now we can ask whether she got that way from her horrible conditions or if she really was born dangerous. Is it possible that the parents suck but are also right to lock her up? I don’t know, I feel pretty confident there’s a more responsible and healthy way to handle a monster baby. But I say that without having walked a mile in their shoes. Anyway I like scratching my head trying to determine what the backstory could possibly be.

The script is by Chris Thomas Devlin – it was on the Black List in 2018, getting him the gig to do TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2022). Oh yeah, I remember seeing this on his credits back when I reviewed that. COBWEB is advertised as “from the producer of BARBARIAN and IT” (that would be Roy Lee) but Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen are also producers on it, which I would’ve correctly taken as a sign that it’s something interesting, had I known about it. Devlin and Bodin are definitely filmmakers to keep an eye on. Don’t let them out!

This entry was posted on Monday, October 23rd, 2023 at 7:02 am and is filed under Reviews, Horror, Monster. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Cobweb (2023 American film)”

  1. This movie was so much better than I thought it would be. Looked like a standard issue horror where not a ton happens…that’s sort of correct in a way but storywise it’s not too slow and when shit DOES happen you sure get a lot of it. Has some good Evil Dead vibes.

  2. This was really good until literally the last 5 minutes. Even the full reveal of Sarah was good, but it didn’t wrap up in a satisfactory manner — I mean, I wasn’t expecting the house to explode or anything, but just leaving it where they left it, without any kind of catharsis or conclusion, was unfair to the audience.

  3. Gotta agree with everyone here. I think it’s a testament to how the movie works that an ending like that can feel like such a comedown. It asks the question, “what now?” But I feel like there’s no specificity to what any potential outcomes could be.

    The movie’s shift from the parents to the creature coming out of the walls is such a huge and gratifying swerve though. Pity that, it seems, the movie wasn’t marketed at all.

  4. I think I’d probably compare it (in a RIYL way) to ANTLERS. It has some similar elements (super sad kid saved from cursed family by well-meaning teacher) but they each go in their own direction.

  5. I don’t want to derail the Halloween mood, but I am pretty excited for COBWEB (2023 South Korean film directed by Kim Jee-woon). For a black comedy about film making I think it’s unlikely to top 2021’s OFFICIAL COMPETITION, but a movie with Song Kang-Ho directed by Kim is always going to be worth paying attention to.

  6. I’ll try to steer away but impossible to not have SPOILERS here. The ending, and I mean the last 45 seconds, were nearly identical to a different horror movie I saw in the last couple years. Does anyone know what that might be? I looked through my letterboxd and couldn’t remember exactly how movies like Smile or M3gan ended, but I know something else I’ve watched had the very same SERIOUSLY SPOILERS “I will haunt you forever” ending.

  7. Dude, that kid is 100% Busey. That is incredible casting.

    This is a weird-ass movie. Looks beautiful. American Gothic fairytale type vibes. The lighting and production design are wonderful. An ultra-heightened reality vibe overlaid on an ultra-mundane, generic town (really just a school and a dilapidated street). Like Burton vibes meets anytown USA meets Grimm fairie tales.

    The casting is great. Parents are really good — attractive but severe and off. “Good bones” but somehow unwell in mind and body. She’s so wan and haunted and tightly wound; he’s also tightly wound but always looks like he’s holdin back tears and screams (also looks like he’s always got a dip of Skoal under his lip, but I think that’s just how his mouth is). Strange, these two.

    Cleopatra Coleman. Loved her on LAST MAN ON EARTH, and she’s great here. Her and the boy give us the heart and soul — stakes, grounding. They get it done. The boy is so great in this, too.

    Some really great creepy images. This guy could direct the hell out of a HALLOWEEN or ALIEN. Probably better for him to stick to original stuff. Yup, it’s a keeper. Even if it doesn’t quite nail the ending, it’s an inspired and assured outing.

    Yeah, the reveal didn’t work for me. I mean, conceptually it did, but visually it didn’t. Likewise, I’m fine with the ending in principle, but it’s correct that the execution felt a little abrupt.

    Overall, there’s too much good about this film — I have to give it a W. It’s one I can see myself re-watching. Very confident, with a strong vision — visually, conceptually, and in the performances.

  8. Complete and total

    Yeah, as silly as it sounds, given what an obviously heightened, fairytale-type reality this is, I had trouble with her being his sister. As in, having the actual same birth parents and being the boy’s semi-contemporary and someone young enough for his parents to also be her parents. She’s just too old-seeming and sounding in her normal voice. Like, she sounds like a grandmother. Even by this film’s own internal mytho-logic and with all the suspension of disbelief that I’ll gladly allow for, it just makes no damn sense for her to seem that much older than her supposed own parents while also being that lithe and bad-ass. Is she a shriveled old husk or Spider-man + MALIGNANT + Neo in the Matrix? I’ll sooner accept the fact that “living in a wall” therapy has given her super powers than I’ll accept that a person who sounds like she’s been chain-smoking Lucky Strikes for about 60 years could be that boy’s sister or those parents’ kid.

    A variety of ways around this, each of which creates some problems or trade-offs of its own, but how about just give her a still-very-nasty, but not-elderly-sounding “real” voice?

    While I’m re-tooling the ending, I don’t really like the Spider-Man shit. Too silly. She could be this squat little thing that is stealthy and carnivorous and more vampire-like (from hunting and eating rats and shit for the last umpteen years) and could’ve done in the Buseys on more of a silent stalker tip, knocking them off quietly one at a time. I don’t think the Spider-Man shit adds much and just takes it from a pretty haunting fairtyale horror drama into different, sillier territory.

    Possibly such cures are worse than the disease, but I wonder.

    Still very well worth watching.

  9. SPOILERS, I GUESS: What I had trouble believing was that a creature who could reduce a human being to about a gallon of chunky red liquid in less than a second would have any trouble at all busting through a rotting plaster and lathe wall. That’s fairly standard movie logic though. Filmmakers seem pretty convinced that most walls are impenetrable unless a Terminator or X-man throws you through one, in which case it is as soft and crumbly as a coffee cake. The reality is, unless a wall is brick or cinder block, a motivated adult (or a pissed off pumpkin witch monster) could get through it without that much trouble using just fists and feet.

    Good movie, though. Doesn’t quite stick the landing but I appreciated the double pump fake twist and the unexpected monstery business at the end. RINGU-style contorted-elbows all-fours crawling is pretty passé in my opinion but I’ll allow it just this once.

  10. I think using logic when it comes to the sister ends up being futile because she is so clearly a monster and not just a human with some deformity or whatever. For what we actually know the parents did a seance to make the mother finally be able to have a baby, but the unknown price was this weird demon child.

    Possibly, but, for whatever reason, generically (as in, genre-ically), I feel like this is set up as kind of fairytale or a myth or a morality tale, and the whole thing about fairy tales is that they tend to make their mythology explicit some way or another, either with a crawl or prologue or through flashbacks: “In the beginnning…”, “Once upon a time…”, LOTR, STAR WARS, etc. Granted that this film doesn’t show a flashback to the birth one way or another, but I feel like in this case, the argument of silence is compelling: she’s a deformed kid locked away, and the parents’ decision to banish her vs. reckon with her some way or another made her somethign worse (or at least didn’t work as intended). And if there was more elaborate juju involved, we’d hear about it.

    I don’t feel like your theory is provably wrong, but I feel like one shouldn’t have to invent entire extra critical backstory to explain salient, observable, and somewhat incongruous features of the characters or world. I happened to just be reviewing the argument about IT FOLLOWS, and there was a lot of criticism about how aspects of the IT THAT FOLLOWS’s behavior and motivations were ambiguous or under-explained. I defended this on grounds that it’s a deliberately mysterious and ambiguous curse, where the whole point is that you don’t exactly know where it came from, why it seems to be passed around person-to-person like an STD, how to stop it (or even whether it can be stopped), or why it’s traveling through this particular network of partners and not any old horny teen out there in the universe. To me, that’s like the Overlook hotel or the zombie apocalypse: From the protagonist or viewer’s perspective, the thing to know is that it’s malevolent, and you’ve found your way into its path — who knows where or how it started or how far or long it can and will follow you, and how or whether it will stop, but get away from it if you can for as long as you can! That’s part of the terror, and it’s part of putting you on the same puzzled, terrified footing as the protagonist — making sense of it the best you can as you go but without having too much time or mental space to do so.

    In contrast, with this one, it feels like it’s set up as a “Once upon a time…” deal where the backstory is the reveal vs. a perennial mystery. Granted, the daughter very possibly could (and in some ways provably is) an unreliable narrator, but I’m averse / skeptical to retconny elaborate mythologizing to explain incongruities like the sister seeming like a grandma.

  12. I don’t remember if I thought the same thing with the voice but the second you see the face it makes sense. It’s not a kid, or a little girl, or even a human being…it’s a straight up MONSTER. What I thought was going to be a slow burn elevated style horror turned out to be a stealth creature feature. This wasn’t really on a list of movies I was planning to see any time soon, I figured it was ponderous slow horror but several people I trust said no I need to watch it because it’s right up my alley and it was.

    I think the possible disconnect of this movie is it’s doing two things and not fully committing to either. They’re doing this sort of realistic movie…the boy’s school is regular, there are iphones, nothing seems wildly off, etc. BUT on the other hands it’s doing this stylized fairy tale like WHY is there a pumpkin patch of GIANT misshappen pumpkins in their yard? The lighting and visual style sometimes clues you into the idea you’re in a fantasy world, and sometimes not. Personally, I didn’t really mind this.

    I don’t think the movie really gives any reason for the sister to be the way she is and I’m not usually a fan of adding bullshit in your mind to make something make sense or be some nerd wank off theory to tell each other on forums. I think simply, in the world of this movie they gave birth to an actual demonic monster and who knows why, and to wonder or question why is futile because the movie doesn’t really care. If it were a little more Tim Burtony and set in 1800 in the dark woods we wouldn’t even question it, we’d be like sure that thing came out of a real human vagina because In The Deep Dark Woods Sometimes Evil Shit Happens.

    This is going to be one of those unproductive arguments where words and concepts and interpretations blur, and we start talking past each other (we probably already are), but… I think she is a human being and a kid who is his sister but also certainly is a monster in the sense of being deformed/mutated/”monstrous.” She’s not like a dragon or a bear or a unicorn or even a demon. I think she’s meant to be human. Now, to your point, you could probably construct a story where she’s not actually human and maybe not even actually his sister but is some sort of demon whom his parents trapped tgat has been manipulating him even about the fact that they’re siblings (I can’t say/recall for sure whether other bits of the story or dialogue would allow this on pains of non-contradiction), but I really don’t think so. She’s more like if the Elephant man could do Neo from the Matrix stuff.

  14. Really liked it. The ending felt a little rushed, but I didn’t mind, I still thought it was good. And the [are we beyond SPOILERS yet?] reveal that his sister was a cross between Sadako, Gollum and a Halloween pumpkin was… well, the movie kept throwing so much shit Peter’s way that I just rolled with it. Of course his sister’s gonna end up being this monstrous spidery thing. It did bother me that it sounded like Patty or Selma, but more because it was funny and such an obvious choice. But there’s not that much they could have chosen from, I guess; Whispery voice? Keeping the voice she used through the wall would have been too silly, but maybe something that sounds like it could have been made by the same, umm, non-person would have worked better.

    Love that, as Vern points out, there’s several scenes with the parents’ shadows looming over Peter. Stylish and thematic. There’s also a few scenes where a shadow precedes Peter or the teacher into a room. The cinematography does a few cool things without really calling attention to itself.
    I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard at a non-comedy in a while – I mean with the movie, not at the movie. It’s ridiculous, and it knows it, but it doesn’t put in any actual jokes. Just over-the-top grotesquerie and a kid getting put through the wringer. It’s going to take a shitload of therapy to even begin coping with all that shit.

  15. SPOILERS AND SPOILERS AND SPOILERS. Seeing this, it’s pretty clear they weren’t going for realism. Being locked up in a pit for years doesn’t make you superstrong and able to climb on walls, much less socially adept enough to manipulate even a young child. But this wasn’t meant to be a docudrama.

    It felt a bit like one of those shorts that’s stretched out to feature length–like all the stuff with Sarah swooping around was the real movie and the rest was an extended prologue (it’s a bad sign for the narrative when you have to give your protagonist a jumpscare nightmare). All the stuff with Peter’s parents ended up having surprisingly little to do with the third act; I think it was a misstep to take out them both so early and so easily, because we’re left with just a slasher movie monster doing their thing and not really any emotional catharsis. I think that’s why the ending isn’t landing for people. Peter’s sister is basically a new threat introduced at the eleventh hour, so it’s hard to be invested in her. Peter’s arc ends with him killing his parents… it’s hard to go anywhere from there.

  16. [SPOILERS!]
    @Kaplan – I can see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think I agree with it being a script problem (I tend to not mind structural script problems, though). The parents are there for the first two acts, the sister for the second two. Both parties are both menacing and potentially helpful, and the whole second act, where they overlap, is basically a mystery, where Peter needs to choose between the two. He chooses… poorly. The whole ordeal with the parents is a lot of fun, and their fate is a great bit of gallows humor. The third act knows that it can’t lean on them, so it shifts gears.
    I mean… I’m not going to make that many excuses for the plot, except that it knows exactly how ludicrous it is. Does it qualify as an idiot plot? The parents know what’s happening as soon as Peter starts complaining about noises in the wall, they could have headed off the situation in any number of ways. I’m guessing they botch it because they’re fucking nutjobs.

    For a minute there in the second act I though the movie was going to turn into a stealth HOUSEBOUND remake. It goes in the opposite direction, but the fact that it got me doubting speaks well of the way the script is put together, I think. My problem with the ending is that the third act spends way more on the whole business with the home invasion than the confrontation with Peter and Miss Devine. And the fact that the way they ‘dispatch’ the baddie is unimaginative and kind of anticlimactic. And again, I don’t think it was bad, just a little bit of a letdown.

  17. This movie takes place within the 610 area code, where I lived. It was shot in Bulgaria, but their dilapidated street could be in any of the dying coal towns around here. So what I’m saying is, the movie is realistic. I went to school with two Cobwebs and a Malignant.

    Count me in as someone who loved the third-act swerve. It goes full spookablast. And this kind of abrupt ending worked for me. The movie gets out while the getting is good. Though, like MALIGNANT, I’d love to know how this all shakes out afterward. There’d be investigations and court cases and commitments to mental hospitals, probably. But that stuff would break the movie’s spell. (I would watch a COBWEB 2, though.)

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