Producers: Roy Lee, Andrew Childs, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver and Josh Fagen Director: Samuel Bodin Screenplay: Chris Thomas Devlin Cast: Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Antony Starr, Luke Busey, Jack Rincón, Aleksandra Dragova, Anton Kottas, Steffanie Busey, Jivko Mihaylov, Iliyan Nikolov, Aleksander Asparuhov, Victoria Velikova, Kate Nichols, Olivia Sussman and Debra Wilson Distributor: Lionsgate
When you see Seth Rogen’s name among the producers, you might be inclined to expect that “Cobweb” will be a comedy, or since it’s a horror movie, at least one played tongue-in-check. But though there are certainly elements of black comedy in Samuel Bodin’s feature debut (which calls to mind, among other influences, Bob Balaban’s 1989 cult classic “Parents” and offers a mash-up of genre tropes in the last reel that might elicit a few knowing chuckles), it’s mostly played straight.
Woody Norman, who was remarkable as Jesse, the young nephew of Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny in Mike Mills’s “C’mon, C’mon,” plays Peter, a morose little boy living with strange, severe parents Carol (Lizzy Caplan) and Mark (Antony Starr) in a small town called Holdenfield (not far from Haddonfield, one suspects, though the state isn’t mentioned—the movie was actually shot in Bulgaria). It’s the week before Halloween, and Peter’s substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) is concerned about his being bullied by classmate Brian (Luke Busey), as well as a drawing he’s made, depicting a child shouting “Help” from the second-story window of a house. When she visits Carol and Mark to explore the situation with them, and again after their son has been expelled for pushing Brian down a flight of stairs, they respond with an indifference that’s positively hostile, and announce that they’ve decided to home-school Peter. That involves locking the kid in the basement and then explaining to his teacher that the noise he’s making is just their washing machine churning away.
We’re already aware of what’s been happening to poor Peter. He’s been bothered by noises coming from behind the wall in his bedroom, which Carol explains as the natural groans of an old house and Mark suggests could be rats—to take care of which he spreads around some poison. But the noises turn into the voice of a girl (at first Olivia Sussman, then Debra Wilson) who advises the boy about dealing with Brian’s harassment and reveals to him secrets about his parents’ past, including their possible involvement in the disappearance of a neighborhood girl some years before, which leads Peter to do some digging in their backyard garden—a pumpkin patch, though they won’t allow him to go trick or treating and, while they put up some Halloween decorations, vehemently shoo away trick-or-treaters who come to the door. It all induces Peter to do something definitive about Carol and Mark and to release the entity (Aleksandra Dragova, along with special visual effects) from confinement behind the wall, her identity and purpose now explained.
But if the film has already begun to go off the rails, it enters full crash mode as other horror tropes are introduced. First the plot swerves into home invasion mode as Brian, on crutches, brings his older cousins, dressed in animal masks, to attack Peter and his parents, not realizing that there’s something more in the house they’ll have to deal with. Shortly afterward Miss Devine shows up again, leading one to wonder whether Coleman might be walking into something like the unfortunate situation Scatman Crothers’ Hallorran faced in “The Shining.”
One mentions Kubrick’s film because in many respects Philip Lozano’s elegant cinematography is reminiscent of John Alcott’s in that movie, though in darker hues. It’s matched by Alan Gilmore’s striking production design, which adds surrealistic touches to the house’s interior. This is an exceptionally good-looking horror film, in which the lapidary editing by Richard Riffaud and Kevin Greutert, along with the last-act effects supervised by Ivo Jivkov, add substantially to the creepy mood. So does the imaginative score by Drum & Lace (Sofia Hultquist), which builds slowly from ominous growls to a crescendo by the close.
Norman doesn’t have the opportunity to sparkle as he did for Mills, but he makes Peter a sadly sympathetic kid, and Caplan and Starr give his parents a sinister eccentricity, while Coleman is likable as the uncommonly committed teacher. “Cobweb” is another horror movie that’s commendably atmospheric but grows increasingly far-fetched as topper after topper is added to the mix. In the end the logical lapses become too much for the flimsy structure to bear, but the ride is surprisingly engaging from moment to moment.