REVIEW: Cobweb (2023, dir. Samuel Bodin)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 88 mins

UK Distributor: Lionsgate

WHO’S IN COBWEB?

Woody Norman, Lizzy Caplan, Antony Starr, Cleopatra Coleman, Luke Busey, Aleksandra Dragova, Debra Wilson

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Samuel Bodin (director), Chris Thomas Devlin (writer), Andrew Childs, Evan Goldberg, Roy Lee, Seth Rogen and James Weaver (producers), Drum & Lace (composer), Philip Lozano (cinematographer), Kevin Greutert and Richard Riffaud (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young boy (Norman) suspects that his parents (Caplan and Starr) might have a dark secret…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON COBWEB?

Ambiguity is often a vital ingredient for an effective horror story. It isn’t so much the ghost or monster or masked killer that’s scary, but rather the atmosphere surrounding them which keeps certain aspects, such as their appearance or motivation, deep within the shadows. It’s the fear of the unknown, when you’re certain that there’s a threat but aren’t exactly sure what kind you need to look out for, which can be far more terrifying than if you were to actually see the threat itself.

Cobweb, from director Samuel Bodin and writer Chris Thomas Devlin, has a bizarre relationship with ambiguity. On the one hand, it keeps many of its cards close to its chest right up to nearly the very end, which provides an uncertain and tense atmosphere. But then, it falls into that problem of revealing too much and too little all at the same time, leaving you with more questions than answers that the film doesn’t seem interested in revealing, while also pulling back the curtain so far that you can practically see all the stagehands fretting about what to do next. The combination offers some strangely mixed results that, at times, call to question the effectiveness of being ambiguous within this context.

The film introduces us to Peter (Woody Norman), an eight-year-old boy who lives in an old house with his parents Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (Antony Starr). It’s not an especially happy household, for there’s clearly something off about both mother and father, who are overly protective of their son yet do not seem to give him the love and affection that a child needs, something that only Peter’s substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) seems to notice. This becomes especially apparent when Peter begins hearing noises within the walls of his bedroom, which is quickly dismissed by his parents as mere figments of his overactive imagination, but very quickly he catches on to the fact that they clearly not only have something to hide, but seem willing to go to evermore sinister lengths in order to keep their child under control.

Initially, Cobweb does a decent job of establishing the uncertain, yet undeniably tense, atmosphere. Bodin incorporates Philip Lozano’s chilling cinematography to create a drab and miserable aesthetic within this family house, where even the flimsy wallpaper is lifeless and empty, and the pumpkin patch in their backyard – why a family that doesn’t even celebrate Halloween would be growing such things in the first place is anyone’s guess – constantly looks like a mist-blanketed graveyard. Much of the film is darkly lit, which can hinder some of its visuals (more on that in a bit), but more often than not creates a sense of dread that implies a much darker, and entirely unknown, presence lurking in places we can’t even see.

Most of all, simply being around these parents is like walking on eggshells, because there is always something not quite right about their behaviour, even when they’re supposed to be loving and caring to their young son, and you feel like they could snap at any given moment (though, in fairness, when you have Homelander as your father, you should know by now that you’re not in a particularly healthy parent-child relationship). Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr give a pair of creepy, borderline campy performances that barely conceal their sinister nature, while still keeping certain things about their characters under heavy lock and key, such as their cruel and controlling behaviour which they exhibit for reasons that are left almost entirely vague.

When the film finally does start becoming a lot clearer in its objectives, that’s when it takes a less satisfying turn. The third act quickly shoves aside many of the lingering questions regarding certain characters, their motivations, and other things which up to that point had been left intentionally ambiguous, in favour of an anything-goes gory climax that is desperately trying to one-up the bonkers ending to James Wan’s Malignant. There are also some reveals which aren’t wholly consistent with the preceding film, which even before then feels as though there are whole scenes which have simply gone missing, as it will suddenly show one character adopt an aggressive new attitude with almost no progression to this abrupt shift, or even a sense that whatever may have compelled them to do so has been around long enough to inspire such a change.

Its grasp on ambiguity becomes more and more slippery as the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, with numerous unanswered or over-answered questions, and designs which might look impressive if the darkened lighting didn’t leave you unable to even see many of them, or at the very least get an impression of their appearance. In wanting to have its cake and eat it, Cobweb ends up fumbling its promising set-up with a somewhat clumsy effort to maintain its ambiguity while still offering the viewer a reasonable enough conclusion.

In the end, it gets tangled in its own web.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Cobweb initially has an intriguing set-up with a chilling atmosphere and darkly-lit aesthetic that suggests a vaguer threat, only for it to come crashing down during a climax that sacrifices the ambiguity in favour of all-out chaos with more questions left than satisfying answers.

Cobweb is showing in cinemas from Friday 1st September 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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