Director: Samuel Bodin
Screenwriter: Chris Thomas Devlin
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Anthony Starr, Cleopatra Coleman, Woody Norman
A young boy of eight (Peter, played by Woody Norman) goes to school in the town of Holdenfield. It’s a week before Halloween (and we’re sure that the place being called Holdenfield is entirely coincidental to this Halloween timing. They’d never make a reference like that. Of course not). Our young friend is unhappy, as shown by slow motion montages of walking to school alone, sitting silently as the other kids throw stuff around the classroom. At home, he tries to sleep, but something troubles him. Something in the wall knocks. He gets up and knocks on the wall three times. Nothing. And again. Then something returns the knocking.
This could be the setup for almost any horror film you’d care to mention. A bit of The Boogeyman, perhaps. Maybe even a little of The Babadook. But Cobweb plays it differently. The voice in the wall tells him to stand up for himself in school against the bully that will get him at recess, and one could be led to assume that the film is about to go down the route of a possession story with an internal twist. It’s not unheard of; Sara Gran’s novel “Come Closer” has done similar, and Prevenge has an unborn baby as the controlling antagonist, but this is a big screen, major distributor release (Lionsgate and Vertigo both in the credits). It’s a different spin of the old web.
Then Cobweb really changes, and we really see where the film shines.
The original script was on the Blacklist (a collection of the top unproduced screenplays from major studios) for years. Films such as The Imitation Game, The King’s Speech, and other critically-acclaimed productions have been on the list over the years, so you know Cobweb will have something unique. What it has is a desire to constantly subvert expectations of formula, to morph into various different subgenres of domestic horror, to constantly twist and change, and to keep us on our toes. That it manages to do so organically, with moments well timed and the film constantly paced effectively, is a triumph, a near unbelievable feat in under 90 minutes.
Lizzy Caplan and Anthony Starr put in wonderful performances, parents always with something hidden under the surface. Caplan, having played young Annie Wilkes in ‘Castle Rock’, is no stranger to this kind of role, and captures the stress and terror beautifully. Woody Norman, whose job it is to carry the film, manages to capture the terror of a young child incredibly. Everything is going well. Bodin’s direction is sharp and clear. It’s all very good and enjoyable.
The last act, however, fails in its execution. In theory, the final reveal for the last twenty minutes of runtime could have worked incredibly well, with an emotional, tormenting look at abuse, neglect, and broken families. It tries this. But with the choice to go down a very Japanese route, with obvious inspirations such as Ju-On The Grudge and even Teke-Teke being very prominent, this final switch-up fails because it tries to be too much of a big finale when the film doesn’t warrant it. It’s far too Hollywood. We need a big bad, a big show of an ending, a mighty crescendo. Does every horror film need this? The obvious and correct answer is no.
In a different film, this particular presentation might be OK; a film that goes for the more outrageous, outlandish tone. Perhaps if it were a horror-comedy, it would stick the landing. Here, it feels out of place, and some dodgy CGI moments don’t help issues. It brings the possible into the realm of the ridiculous, and when the rest of the film has been about the all-too horrifying real possibilities of secrets in the dark of our houses, someone somewhere massively dropped the ball.
If that final act had been handled differently, had they tapped into the emotional possibilities of the themes they were trying to explore instead of going for all-out horror, Cobweb would be standing as one of the surprises of the year. As it is, it gets so close. It’s still a great film for the most part, but that last act leaves a sour taste in the mouth, because it is all too easy to see the potential lying underneath.
Cobweb is a daring push at formula within its own cage, and it comes ever so close to breaking its bars and unleashing madness upon the world. Someone, unfortunately, at the very last moment, thrust its head back inside and installed new locks on the door, then pushed something in front of the door, hiding it from the world. One has the unfortunate feeling that the film will fall into complete obscurity fairly quickly, and considering the potential it had, that makes it all the more tragic.