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!