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'Cobweb' Is the Scariest Movie of 2023
How is it possible that the critics hated this so much?
Director Samuel Bodin’s Cobweb came and went from theaters in July - probably because its distributor, Lionsgate, thought it was a good idea to open the movie the same weekend as Barbie and Oppenheimer. A non-existent marketing campaign obviously didn’t help, either, and the mostly-negative reaction from critics was surely the final nail in the coffin. I myself had no interest in seeing the movie until it got a rave review from Red Letter Media this past weekend.
The critics who panned the picture should feel deeply embarrassed, if not outright ashamed. There are legitimate critiques to be leveled against Cobweb - it’s the rare movie that could actually stand to be about ten minutes longer, which would allow it to flesh out the relationships a little bit more - but those aren’t the elements on which these reviewers focused. Time and again, the poor reviews honed in on a perceived lack of originality and/or naturalism. These are the same critics who praised Hereditary, a movie about as rooted in realism as Transformers… the same critics who praised last year’s Barbarian, the only original element of which is its story structure… and the same critics who praised Talk to Me, which I’m reasonably certain was written using a horror movie Mad Libs (and for the record, I actually quite liked Barbarian and Hereditary - I just think there’s a weird double-standard here that bears discussion).
As for complaints that the movie’s logic isn’t always “realistic,” well… that’s because it’s not trying to be a realistic movie. It’s a fairy tale told from the perspective an eight-year-old boy. Bodin and screenwriter Chris Thomas Devlin aren’t trying to make a documentary - they’re trying to remind you what it feels like to be a small child and horrified out of your goddamn gourd. And in that regard, they very much stick the landing.
That the story is being told subjectively from Peter’s point of view is readily apparent from the very first shot of the movie, in which Peter is centered and in focus while everything around him is blurry.
After a montage taking us through Peter’s less-than-awesome day, the narrative begins in earnest roughly two minutes later, after the conclusion of the opening credits. At that point, we land on a shot of Peter sleeping peacefully in bed. The relative silence of the room is disrupted by a loud creak, at which point Bodin cuts to a tight close-up of Peter abruptly awakening.
How did so many critics fail to see this as a clear indication that this movie will employ the logic of a child’s nightmare (i.e., not all the dots are gonna be connected)? How did they watch a movie with a plethora of overt references to Brothers Grimm stories like Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel, and not think that this was meant to be a fairy tale? How did they view the blatantly impressionistic cinematography (by Philip Lozano), with its repeated use of oversized shadows, dutch angles, and perfect symmetry… how did they view the production design (by Alan Gilmore), which makes every room look brazenly larger than it could possibly be in real life… and just not get what the movie was doing? How could they get stuck on details of rationale, like why the family has a pumpkin patch in their yard, and not note the recurring symbolism inherent in those pumpkins (even the hot air balloons on Peter’s wallpaper look like pumpkins - this, I guarantee you, was not an accident)? Are these critics stupid, or just willfully ignorant?
Set the week before Halloween, Cobweb follows Peter (C’mon C’mon’s Woody Norman), a young boy bullied at school by a bigger kid named Brian (Luke Busey, the adolescent son of geriatric Gary Busey), and whose closest thing to a friend is his teacher, Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman from The Last Man on Earth and Infinity Pool), whose name is yet another indication that this movie isn’t aiming for stark realism.
Peter’s life at home ain’t much better. His mother, Carol (Lizzy Caplan, excellently cast against type) is over-protective and skittish, and won’t let Peter go trick-or-treating because of the mysterious, Etan Patz-esque disappearance of a little girl on Halloween years earlier; his father, Mark, has a less-than-comforting demeanor that is, in fact, ambiguously, and sometimes not-so-ambiguously, menacing (Mark is played by Antony Starr, who plays Homelander on The Boys - in other words, he specializes in psychologically complex, dread-inducing antagonists who are ostensibly pretending to be something they’re not).
At the start of the film, Peter is awoken by what sounds like someone or something creeping around inside his bedroom wall. And that someone or something obviously has a certain level of intelligence: When Peter taps on his side of the wall, whatever it is taps back. Naturally, Peter’s parents don’t believe him, insisting the sound was either a rodent or simply the kind of noise old houses tend to make. “You have a great, big, beautiful imagination,” Carol tells him. “But all those scary things? They’re just in your head.”
Suffice it to say, all those scary things are not just in Peter’s head. I won’t give away the source of the noise here, or where the narrative takes you, but I will say that this what the story is really about: That time in childhood when you suddenly realize that no adult can truly protect you and, in fact, some of them may actively want to harm you.
And, yes, a lot of the individual elements are, for lack of a kinder word, derivative. Plenty of critics have pointed the obvious influences of The Shining, Halloween, The Exorcist, and The People Under the Stairs, to name but a few (there’s at least one movie that, were I to explicitly say its title, would more or less give away the whole game). Thing is, Bodin clearly gets those movies; he understands what makes them work as scary experiences, and he employs those lessons to masterful effect. Again, it’s hard to get into too many specifics without giving anything way, so let me just say this: Bodin might be taking from other movies, but he’s also finding ways to make the old tricks feel new again.
This may be most obviously evident in the film’s editing, by Richard Riffaud and the Saw franchise’s Kevin Greutert. It’s off-kilter in an unsettling way; the rhythm of everything is not what you’re expecting or accustomed to, even by horror movie standards. There’s one scene, for example, where a would-be menace is running towards Peter through a hallway; the lights go out, and Peter can no longer see said menace. You know there’s a jump scare coming - of course there is - but it arrives a few seconds later than you’d suspect, leaving your brain just enough time to think, “Oh, maybe there isn’t a jump scare coming,” which means that when the scare finally arrives, it’s ten times as frightening.
And there’s the final fifteen minutes of the movie, which are both thrillingly gory and existentially bloodcurdling.
I’m not easily scared by films - in fact, I don’t even find most of my favorite scary movies to be particularly chilling so much as they’re just extremely well-made. But Cobweb got to me. So capably does Bodin remind you what it feels like to be a scared kid - feels being the operative word here - that Cobweb easily transcends its shortcomings and becomes something genuinely spine-chilling. Here’s hoping Bodin’s next movie gets the attention it deserves.
[This is normally where I include a trailer for the movie in question, but I’m not going to do that for Cobweb, because the trailer gives too much away. Just watch the goddamn movie. You’ll be glad you did!]