3.5 out of 5 stars

Audiences looking for original shocks in this first feature from young French director Samuel Bodin may be disappointed; not only is the dark, foreboding family home at the heart of Cobweb packed to the rafters with images and ideas from other horror films, but it seems for a while that the big reveal is going to be laughably guessable. Indeed, cinematographer Philip Lozano shoots the man of the house, Mark (Antony Starr), as so obviously a bad guy from early on that he might as well have ‘Wicked Father’ tattooed on his forehead. 

But screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) has subtler ideas up his sleeve, so what one might expect to be a weak end-of-film twist is, instead, quickly brought out into the open: both Mark and his wife Carol (Lizzy Caplan) are confirmed as nightmarish and dangerous parents, professing their love for eight-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) one minute then locking him in a cellar or suggesting he dig a grave-deep hole in the back yard the next. The resemblances of Cobweb to established horror classics are too many to mention, but the way that Carol’s character echoes Piper Laurie’s mother in Carrie (1976) is one of the most noticeable.

Poor Peter, meanwhile, has other problems both at school (where he’s bullied) and at home (where he’s unnerved by strange sounds and a voice in the night). His parents dismiss his fears, but after his schoolteacher (Cleopatra Coleman) sees a worryingly dark picture he’s dawn (I did mention over-familiar tropes…?), she becomes concerned about his wellbeing.

The boy, then, is in the middle of all the film’s relationships. His parents seemingly love, or over-love, him but also distrust him and may feel threatened by him, and have an agenda that isn’t clear. His schoolmates are out to get him, particularly after he injures one of them in retaliation for their bullying. His teacher is on his side, though he may not realise it. And the voice in the wall… well, it claims to be friendly, but you never can tell with voices in the wall.

This is plenty to be getting on with for less than 90 minutes, and Devlin and Bodin also throw a few other things into the mix: among them a not-quite-plausible and certainly not dramatically necessary subplot about a home invasion, a yard full of rotting pumpkins (which is sinister and symbolic but also lays on the contrived Halloween connection a bit thick), and a backstory (related by Peter’s parents) about a girl who went missing up the street some years previously which, again, adds effectively to the feeling of encroaching evil but doesn’t quite stack up.

There is also one genuinely surprising development—which is flagged ahead of time, Chekhov’s Gun style, but one might not believe the screenplay would dare to go that far—and some fairly desultory visual frights toward the end.

Norman (actually 14 years old now, but quite believable as much younger) carries off the role of Peter well, neither too passively terrified nor too plucky. At times he can be scared and curious simultaneously, or scared and angry, just like a real pre-teen. Luke Busey (recognisably the son of actor Gary Busey) is amusingly unlikeable as the ringleader of Peter’s bullies, and Coleman is credible as the teacher, although the part doesn’t give her a great deal to do beyond being decent and slightly heroic. She is, essentially, a plot mechanism necessary because Peter on his own wouldn’t stand a chance against all the threats he eventually faces. As for his parents, the mix of solicitude and menace comes across better from Caplan than from Starr, though her performance does become OTT.

Drum & Lace, a.k.a the composer Sofia Hultquist, contributes an inventive music score with interesting tonal colours, although it’s over-used, and the sound mixing is generally good, too, while Bodin and Lozano favour a simple photographic style.

Indeed, Cobweb seems like a simple film in every way: the storyline is straightforward if a little disjointed, the “surprises” are mostly heavily signposted, and there’s no attempt to disguise its many borrowings from other movies. Yet it’s never boring, thanks to the performances, the pace, the creation of atmosphere (for which the cinematographer and composer should share in the credit), and also because of the real-life horrors it hints at.

The cobwebs of the title, remember, are old spiders’ webs and this movie’s truly disturbing implications lie in the past. Hidden in the walls of Peter’s bedroom, buried beneath that blighted pumpkin patch, are metaphors for child abuse; at the same time, the bullying he endures at school underlines that cruelty and intolerance for difference are not exceptional and extraordinary, but everyday things. The grotesquely horrifying action that Bodin’s film finally reveals is only an extreme example, and while it may draw on countless better-known movies, Cobweb reminded me of nothing so much as Fritz Böhm’s intriguing, unexpected and undeservedly little-known Wildling (2018).

Cobweb may be derivative and in some ways unambitious, but the awful thing it suggests is real enough, and a line spoken by the owner of the mysterious voice reminds us that such horror can poison whole lives, whether through direct effects or simply through memory: “I will always be with you… always.”

USA | 2023 | 88 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Samuel Bodin.
writer: Chris Thomas Devlin.
starring: Lizzy Caplan, Antony Starr, Woody Norman & Cleopatra Coleman.