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Cobweb review: a slight, but shockingly fun horror movie

Woody Norman presses his ear against a bedroom wall in Cobweb.
“Samuel Bodin's Cobweb is a slight, but shockingly fun summer horror offering.”
Pros
  • An intense and unforgettable third act
  • Chris Thomas Devlin's twisty, darkly funny screenplay
  • Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr's admirably weird supporting performances
Cons
  • A thinly drawn cast of characters
  • Uneven mix of horror and humor throughout
  • A slightly anticlimactic final scene

Cobweb is a slow-burn horror film that spends most of its mercifully lean 88-minute runtime building tension before exploding with one of the most genuinely shocking, gleefully gruesome third acts audiences will likely see this year. It is not, by any means, a subtle film. Its opening title card, which ominously sets Cobweb’s first scene exactly one week before Halloween, makes that clear, as does the pumpkin patch that sits in the backyard of its central family’s house for no obvious reason.

Directed by Samuel Bodin, Cobweb is a film that wholeheartedly embraces not only its Halloween aesthetic, but also the kind of amped-up energy that would make it an absolute blast to watch in a packed theater on October 31. On the one hand, that makes its late July limited release a bit baffling. On the other hand, the film’s corny, messy tone and absolutely killer thirst for blood do give it the potential to become a new go-to sleepover horror movie. That doesn’t mean Cobweb is a great or even particularly good film, but it is a whole lot of fun.

A man and a woman look scared in Cobweb.
Lionsgate

Cobweb‘s premise is deceptively simple: 8-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) finds himself kept awake every night by the sound of knocking coming from the other side of his bedroom wall. Unfortunately, every time he tells his overprotective parents, Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (The Boys‘ Antony Starr), about the noises, they insist that they’re nothing more than figments of his own imagination. When the nightly knocks then turn into the sound of a little girl’s voice, Peter begins to suspect that not everything he’s been told by his parents is true.

Chris Thomas Devlin’s refreshingly spare screenplay doesn’t ever waste too much time between its various plot developments. In the film’s first scene, Peter is shaken awake by the sound of his room’s unseen knocks, but it’s only a little over 10 minutes later that those knocks have become an unlikely conversation between Peter and the little girl who seemingly lives inside his walls. It similarly isn’t long before Peter’s odd home life has not only caught the attention of his caring substitute teacher, Miss Devine (an underserved Cleopatra Coleman), but also put him at odds with his own parents.

Caplan and Starr, for their parts, lean all the way into their characters’ obvious shadiness. At no point throughout Cobweb does Bodin try to convince you that Carol and Mark aren’t hiding something. The fun of Cobweb’s first two acts instead lies in how much the film both plays up their horrible parenting skills and forces you to constantly rethink what secrets they may be trying to keep from their son. Caplan, in particular, turns in such a frazzled, overzealous performance as Peter’s mom that it’s unclear for a while whether she’s a villain, or merely a mother incapable of communicating the love she feels for her child.

Woody Norman holds a flashlight in a dark crawlspace in Cobweb.
Lionsgate / Lionsgate

There is, of course, a danger to indulging in a slow-burn structure like the one Cobweb employs. Asking audiences to stay invested in your story even when the scares aren’t coming all that quickly or ferociously only works if you do eventually reward them for their patience. Many recent horror movies have failed to live up to their end of that bargain, but Cobweb isn’t one of them. For as tired, familiar, and obvious as its first 40 minutes may occasionally seem, the film doesn’t hold back once its lit fuse has, at long last, finally reached the end of its line.

No bombs go off in Cobweb’s third act, but there might as well be a few that do. The film’s climactic embrace of its own heightened, nightmarish logic inevitably calls to mind recent horror classics like The Conjuring and Hereditary. Behind the camera, Bodin never comes close to matching the bravura visual styles of those films’ directors, but he does pack more than a few memorable gags, kills, and genuinely chilling images into Cobweb‘s short runtime.

The director makes full use of the film’s central house in ways that are both ingenious and rewarding, and that’s especially true of one moment in which Peter’s hiding spot under his bed is used against him. The scene in question is not only unnerving, but also darkly funny, and it ends with a visual punch line that similarly rides the line between horrifying and hilarious. Ultimately, the precision of Cobweb‘s third act only further differentiates it from the film’s first two-thirds, which fail to strike such a consistent tonal balance.

Woody Norman stands in a doorway behind Lizzy Caplan in Cobweb.
Lionsgate

For some, Cobweb may prove to be too tonally uneven, its characters too archetypically drawn, and its performances too over-the-top. But for faithful horror fans, the pleasures that Cobweb has to offer are simple and invigorating. At times, it feels like the film has sprung forth straight from the pages of a 20th-century paperback horror novel — the kind that authors like Christopher Pike (The Midnight Club) and R.L. Stine (Fear Street) built their legacies writing.

It’s a thinly drawn, cheaply built production, but it isn’t afraid to take risks. And it’s got, at the very least, one or two surprises up its sleeve that should shock even the most keen-eyed of viewers. The film isn’t as dusty or intricate as its title suggests, either, and its teeth are sharp enough for it to take a solid bite out of anyone who gives it their time. As Cobweb’s deliriously rendered finale proves, merely covering something up isn’t always enough to keep it hidden. On the contrary, sometimes it’s only when they’ve been locked away in the darkest recesses of our minds that our secrets become stronger — and deadlier.

Cobweb is now playing in select theaters.

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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