After turning heads with the well-received but short-lived Netflix original horror series Marianne, French director Samuel Bodin moves into features with the visually compelling though ultimately disappointing chiller, Cobweb. Written by Chris Thomas Devlin, who took a stab at rejuvenating the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise in 2022, the script landed on the Black List, among the best unproduced screenplays of 2018, as well as its horror counterpart, the Blood List. That pedigree clearly helped draw a solid cast and crafts team, but after a promising set-up, the story’s internal logic gets scrambled.
Suspenseful though seldom scary, the film is set a week before Halloween and hinges for a good part of its run time on the reliable horror trope of the threat coming from inside the house.
The Bottom Line Tangled in its own ambiguities.
It effectively defies the natural family dynamic of parents as protectors of the vulnerable by giving the young protagonist, Peter (Woody Norman, from C’mon C’mon), reason to fear his mother and father, Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (Antony Starr), and the audience reason to believe their seeming malevolence. The mystery at the heart of the story is how much of this is the product of what Peter’s mother calls his “overactive imagination.”
Bullied at school, Peter is a pensive, solitary kid with a mop of hair that calls to mind Danny Torrance, just as DP Philip Lozano’s insidious tracking shots around the family home take their cue from the nerve-shredding Steadicam sequences in the Overlook Hotel corridors in The Shining.
When Peter starts waking up in the middle of the night to a strange tapping sound coming from inside his bedroom walls, Carol dismisses it as the inevitable creaks and groans of any old house, this one lit in perpetual gloom to heighten the kid’s uneasiness. Mark says it’s likely rats in the walls, sprinkling poison from a large bag that pretty much announces itself as Chekhov’s gun.
Even when Peter’s kind substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) drops by to show his parents a morbid drawing the boy did in class — depicting himself in a blackened room crying “Help me” — Carol brushes her off with more irritation than concern.
Peter learns from his parents that years before he was born, a girl who lived in a boarded-up house at the end of the street vanished on Halloween and was never found. That’s the reason they refuse to let him go trick-or-treating.
But the more time Peter spends alone in his room, the more he starts communicating with the mysterious presence in the walls, which graduates from knocking to full conversations. When the disembodied voice encourages Peter to push back against Brian (Luke Busey), his bullying nemesis at school, his actions get him expelled, leading to harsh punishment from his father.
It’s at this point that the sinister side of Peter’s parents becomes virtually inarguable, and a return visit from Miss Devine causes them to respond with defensiveness that borders on hostility. When the voice coming from his bedroom wall tells Peter that his folks are not what they seem, he has no trouble believing it.
Tension escalates as more becomes known about Carol and Mark’s dark secret and the initially unseen presence in the house. But despite persuasive work from the actors, the film loses rather than gains traction. While there’s an obvious debt to Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, the more Devlin’s screenplay does to explain the enigma behind the hidden doors and within the walls, the less coherent it all becomes.
The spiral of violent carnage will possibly deliver for audiences unconcerned about the plot making sense; not just family members, but also Brian and his thuggish older cousins become targets. Lozano’s visuals are consistently arresting, with terrific use of shadows to malignant effect. And the tonally varied score by Italian trip-hop composer Sofia Hultquist, known professionally as Drum & Lace, is a keeper, starting out with elegant restraint before making way for more ominous notes and only gradually ascending into full-blown mayhem.
But the filmmakers blur the lines as they reveal the hidden menace, via Aleksandra Dragova’s jittery physicality and Olivia Sussman and Debra Wilson’s contrasting voice work. The influence of Linda Blair’s famous spider walk from The Exorcist can be seen in some of the movement, and the title is a tip-off to the creepy-crawly creatures the house’s clandestine resident has been studying to hone its lethality. But is it human or supernatural, mortal or monster? Cobweb keeps the answers to those questions too vague to be satisfying.
Production companies: Point Grey, Vertigo
Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Antony Starr, Luke Busey, Aleksandra Dragova, Jay Rincón, Anton Koitas, Olivia Sussman, Debra Wilson
Director: Samuel Bodin
Screenwriter: Chris Thomas Devlin
Producers: Roy Lee, Andrew Childs, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver, Josh Fagen
Executive producers: Jonathan McCoy, Christopher Woodrow, Connor DiGregorio
Director of photography: Philip Lozano
Production designer: Alan Gilmore
Costume designer: Anna Gelinova
Music: Drum & Lace
Editors: Richard Riffaud, Kevin Greutert
Special effects supervisor: Ivo Jivkov
Casting: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy
Rated R, 1 hour 28 minutes