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cobweb horror movie.jpeg

This Lizzy Caplan Hidden Gem May Be the Best Halloween Movie of the Year

By Jason Adams | Film | August 16, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | August 16, 2023 |


cobweb horror movie.jpeg

If you need further proof that the suits running the movie-studios have no idea what they’re doing, then please stare straight into Cobweb, director Samuel Bodin’s terrifying and absolutely terrific new Halloween horror classic. Unceremoniously dumped into a few theaters in mid-July—on “Barbenheimer” weekend, no less—Cobweb was then even more unceremoniously dumped onto VOD all of three weeks later. In good news, this does mean that you can go rent it in all of the usual places right this very minute! But this movie, which knocked my orange-and-black-striped festive holiday socks off (I wear them all year long just in case) deserved far better—the line for cult status starts right here, right now, and right behind me.

Woody Norman—who weirdly co-starred in this past weekend’s also-possibly-unfairly dumped horror flick The Last Voyage of the Demeter (I haven’t seen it yet and opinions are all over the place)—here in Cobweb plays Peter, a lonely and bullied boy who hides every minute under his giant mop-top of hair. So basically the opposite of the kid that Norman played brilliantly two years ago in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon. Except for that hair—he had the hair there too.

But unlike that earlier performance, Peter is all inwardly aimed—at home he spends hours bouncing a ball against his bedroom wall, and at school he’s either staring down at his desk or out the classroom window. Which is followed not long thereafter with a wince, once his personal bully Brian (Luke Busey, carrying on the grand Busey family tradition of having an immediately villainous face) sneers Peter’s name, alongside promises of recess-time beatings to come.

So life for Peter ain’t grand, and that’s before we even get around to his parents. There’s his dad Mark (Antony Starr from The Boys) who is outwardly all smiles but, well, if you’ve seen The Boys then you know how unnerving Starr’s smile can be. There’s some kind of deep void behind it that’s impossible to process, but which Bodin exploits for every blasted iota. Starr’s every line of dialogue is riddled with two-faced tension, whether he’s talking about doing work in the backyard pumpkin patch or whether he’s teaching his boy the merits of poisoning rats to, you know, protect your family. Plus his eyes are lit like tar. (I wouldn’t blame anybody for thinking of Coraline’s button-eyed Other Parents, at any rate.)

And as for Peter’s mom Carol, we get the maestro Lizzy Caplan channeling her recent unraveling take on Misery’s Annie Wilkes for Castle Rock, while adding on a hefty dose of Carrie’s Mom from Carrie for good measure. Basically, a mélange of Stephen-King-Moms sprung to uneasy life, Carol is as high-strung as are her turtlenecks. Although religion is never explicitly on this movie’s tongue (keeping itself planted firmly in secular fairy-tale land), Carol is the portrait of a suburban prim sourpuss in modest sleeves and dresses, who never forgets her two constant accessories—her prominently displayed cross necklace, and her zip-cord of keys that unlock (and, it must be said, lock) every door in the house.

And Peter’s house has many, many doors. Many hidden—many which Peter will only uncover across Cobweb’s brief but perfectly structured ninety-minute runtime.

Early into the proceedings and into Peter’s life (in the week leading up to Halloween, it should be noted) enter two good-seeming but ultimately chaotic forces. Firstly he gets a substitute teacher named Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman from The Last Man on Earth and more recently Infinity Pool), who immediately takes an interest in the sullen boy who refuses to go play at recess. And as he’s prone to drawing deeply disturbing images that make his classmates’ holiday scribblings of witches and werewolves look like child’s play, Miss Devine has some valid reason to take a quick interest in Peter.

But her concerns, which will lead to her knock-knock-knocking on Peter’s front door three too many times for anybody’s good, are just one of the yanks on the thread that will send Peter’s life properly unraveling. Because there’s another knocking happening—this one from the other side of the wall in Peter’s bedroom in the middle of the night. And not long behind those knocks, a voice—it’s a young girl it turns out, and she says she lives inside the walls of his house. And she comes right around the time Peter is told a story how a few Halloweens previous a young girl in their neighborhood went missing, never to be heard from again…

And those are about as many plot specifics as I feel like getting into. To go further would rob you of too many terrors and too many delights in seeing how Cobweb’s screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin (who also wrote the most recent Texas Chainsaw movie, among which I count myself as one of the ten people who dug it) spins all of these strands into a miracle of old-fashioned and pitch-black dark fireside tale-telling.

I think it might perhaps be that darkness that in part perplexed the studio suits, as far as it came to selling Cobweb to general audiences—this is a kid’s horror movie that probably runs very very scary for most kids. But to that effect, this is one of those movies that will hopefully be horror-loving formative to more than a handful, just the way Bernard Rose’s 1988 wildly underappreciated and semi-forgotten film Paperhouse was for me, back when I rented the video from the library having no idea just how happily traumatized I was about to get.

If you picture in your mind Stephen Gammell’s profoundly fucked-up illustrations for the Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark books then you might get another sense of what we’re talking about here. And I could rattle off a dozen more influences that Cobweb wears as proudly as Lizzy Caplan does that cross necklace—this exists inside the same liminal vibe that does Mike Dougherty’s 2007 immediate cult fave Trick r’ Treat (which also got unceremoniously dumped by its confused studio). Not to mention that there are explicit shout-outs inside the movie to Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In—movies about family and about childhood that carve that shit up like a Jack-o’-lantern.

Cobweb snakes its way to its own terror-stricken conclusions though, and delivers unto us what I must once again call what I see in my eyes as an immediate All-Hallows classic. Bodin’s Nosferatu-esque use of shadows—there is a shot of a hand raising a knife from another room that made me wail with cinematic giddiness—and his determined sense of space are all spine-tinglingly manifested. The soundscape, of knocks and whispers and clanking keys and the most horrible laughter you will hopefully ever have to hear, is heaven by way of hell itself. And the script steadfastly refuses to spoon-feed some of its particulars, and only with a second view (I had to watch Cobweb twice in a 24-hour period, so immediately enamored I found myself) did some pieces fall into place—but fell they did, and with exceptional precision.

So I guess what I am saying is Cobweb might just be a perfect thing, now sitting in plain sight. In its small-town gothic atmosphere of plastic skeletons wrapped in bandages, displayed for everyone to see. In Woody Norman’s deeply relatable performance of childhood alienation and desperate loneliness. In its explosive last act, which I would’ve denied wanting as I was enjoying the more subtle Lady in White vibes across the first two-thirds, but which I can’t imagine being without, not once all the secrets started spraying out rapid-fire like so much pitch-black viscera. I am totally head-over-heels in love with every creepy crawly corner of this perfect Halloween treat, and the trick’s on everybody that’s not paying attention.