Cobweb (2023) Weaves a Dark Fairy Tale of Horror and Abuse
First Non-Festival Release: July 19, 2023 (Theatrical Release)
Director: Samuel Bodin
Writer: Chris Tomas Devlin
Runtime: 88 Minutes
Starring: Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Lizzy Caplan, Anthony Starr
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Your parents should be the people you trust with your whole heart, but sadly not every kid has that luxury. Even still, most kids don’t have to worry about their parents holding secrets that could kill them. Still, some do.
This is what Peter (Woody Norman) is facing. Tormented by an unidentifiable knocking in his bedroom, Peter finds himself on the wrong end of his parent’s (Lizzy Caplan, Antony Starr) ire as he continues to act out due to the disruptions in his life. The only person who seems to notice and care is his substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) who is instantly frozen out by his parents. Once he crosses a line, Peter is taken out of school and finds his home life turning upside down when he learns the truth his parents are hinding from him.
Deliciously mean-spirited horror fairy tale Cobweb packs a punch on reimagining common childhood fears.
Simple childhood fears give way to clues for the story of Cobweb to unfold in a non-traditional manner. Beginning much like many supernatural horror films, Cobweb introduces the audience to Peter and his family in a very relatable manner. After a dreadful nightmare, his parents come to comfort him and find ways to make him feel comfortable enough to return to sleep. Throughout the course of the film, they transform into more fairytale-like parents with dark secrets and sinister intentions, as Peter struggles to understand his surroundings, thus catapulting him further from their favor.
A typical metaphor for abuse, Cobweb leans into the real-life horrors many abused children endure while still focusing on the more fantastical elements of its story. Thanks to the introduction of Miss Devine (Cleopatra Devine), as Peter’s caring substitute teacher who catches all the signs of abuse, Cobweb examines the ways in which systems fail kids like him every day. The neglect has been ongoing for some time, but when Peter begins experiencing distressing nightmares and hallucinations, his parent’s first reactions are to punish rather than support. When they realize this won’t stop, Peter’s parents begin gradually restricting and isolating his life which only makes it more difficult with him to contend with his problems that they refuse to address. Of course, Peter finds out there is a reason why his parents lied, but their actions still constitute abuse.
Miss Devine’s ability to see all the signs: acting out, disturbing drawings, self-isolation, is all too familiar and showcases a larger problem with tackling this kind of abuse. Despite seeking support from her supervisors and other agencies, Miss Devine is informed that there is nothing she can do, and it would be better for everyone if she "just stopped being difficult". This not only silences her but ultimately silences Peter and his escalated cries for help. Of course, the supernatural horror of Cobweb is terrifying, but the understanding that the parental abuse that initiates the film is happening right now in the homes of people you know is even more chilling.
The cast really goes all out to sell the twisted narrative, and for the most part they stick the landing. Holding most of the film on his shoulders, Woody Norman is a strong talent for his age. Deftly moving from various forms of fear and courage, he portrays Peter with a striking vulnerability that engenders goodwill from the audiences even when he does the worst thing possible in his situation. Lizzy Caplan is also a standout as Peter’s doting but otherwise seriously off mother. Once all the reveals come through the pained smiles make more sense in hindsight, the signs of a wonderful twist being pulled off by strong acting. Her partner in crime, Antony Starr leans more into his rage as a father who wants no one to question his decisions, making for some compelling and heart wrenching scenes.
What truly elevates Cobweb is its seriously impressive cinematography and design choices that transform an unassuming suburban home into a disturbing prison. Unassuming from the outside but viscerally creepy on the inside, the home is its own character. Creaking and sighing under the weight of the violence within, director Samuel Bodin does great work in capturing the seasonal energy from the house that is dressed to perfection, balancing the mundane with the eyebrow-raising. Little things like a sturdy grandfather clock, a patch of various decaying pumpkins in the backyard, and a basement with a sinister trap door make for a breathless bout of spooky entertainment for Halloween.
It is truly a devastating reality that we live in that Lionsgate fumbled the bag so hard when releasing Cobweb. Releasing it at the height of “Barbenheimer”, one of the biggest cultural moments of the last decade in the middle of summer as a clearly Halloween inspired movie is confusing to say the least. Cobweb deserves better. Capturing the autumnal energy flawlessly with its stellar set design and sweeping cinematography, this crowd pleaser will find its audience in the years to come thanks to its off-beat script and strong cast. Unfortunately, you will need to clean the spiderwebs around whatever vault Lionsgate tosses it in. Know that once you find Cobweb for yourself, you will treasure it.
Overall Score? 7/10