Horror may reign supreme during the month of October, but it takes a special kind of film to be considered Halloween Horror. Not only should the movie be chock-full of autumnal imagery like falling leaves, creepy costumes, and carved pumpkins, it should also come with a built-in safety net that allows the viewer to detach from the nightmare. We want to be scared on Halloween, but not so much that we’re too afraid to venture out into the night for trick-or-treating or bonfire revelry. It’s a challenging balance, but successful Halloween Horror allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the celebratory spook while maintaining the holiday’s fun. Director Samuel Bodin’s feature film debut Cobweb expertly tows this line with a terrifying story ripped from the pages of our childhood fairytales. Destined to become an instant Halloween classic, Cobweb is a frightening fable that lures us in with familiar lore before turning the tables with a shocking final act.
Peter (Woody Norman) is a lonely child who lives in an old house with his overprotective parents Mark (Antony Starr) and Carol (Lizzy Caplan). Still reeling from the disappearance of a trick-or-treater several years ago, they keep the shutters drawn and rarely venture out into the community. This isolation makes their son an outcast among his classmates and he lives in fear of relentless bullying. When Peter begins hearing noises coming from behind his bedroom walls, Mark and Carol chalk it up to an overactive imagination. Sensing trouble at home, his new teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) takes an interest in the quiet child, but finds herself stonewalled by his increasingly sinister parents. At first frightening, the voice in the wall soon befriends Peter and encourages him to stand up for himself both at school and at home. As his relationship with the voice grows stronger, Peter uncovers dark secrets hidden deep within the house and tries to avoid becoming the next voice trapped inside the walls.
Despite its baffling July release date, Cobweb takes place in the week leading up to Halloween. Spooky energy weaves its way through the story from the slightly off-kilter jack-o-lanterns decorating Peter’s classroom to the expansive pumpkin patch rotting in his backyard. But aside from this seasonal marker, Cobweb possesses a timeless quality. With nostalgic imagery and old-fashioned furnishings, the story seems to exist in a parallel universe where time has no meaning. It’s not until Miss Devine pulls out a smartphone midway through the film that we know we’re in the 21st century. As the only modern tech in the narrative, this development is rather jarring and serves only to enable the admittedly preposterous final act. But logic aside, the spooky house and run-down atmosphere create a nightmare distinctly viewed through the eyes of a child.
Cobweb is deeply indebted to fairy tales and folklore. Referencing the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and many more, it’s the type of horrific fantasy in which wicked stepmothers, conniving tricksters, and ferocious beasts lurk around every dark corner. In fact, Cobweb is most successful when viewed as a modern fairy tale. Passed down through generations, these stories explain or explore various aspects of daily life, usually containing an element of magic and almost always defying logic. Cobweb explores the evil lurking within the family home and the unquestioned power parents hold over their children. Told with a child’s nightmare logic, the absence of reason only heightens the terror.
Starr and Caplan anchor the film as Peter’s mysterious parents who seem to grow more sinister by the day. Caplan’s performance feels at times histrionic, but this only serves to further erode Peter’s safety net. Antony Starr proves to be the film’s most effective villain as a wolfish father resigned to using viscous means to protect his family. In an eerie parallel to his turn as Homelander on the Amazon Prime series The Boys, Starr revels in the duality of another classic archetype delivering protection with a strong undercurrent of menace. He and Caplan have an unstable chemistry and it’s not until the film’s final moments that we know if we should trust them. Despite a strong adult cast, Cobweb belongs to Woody Norman. Following his BAFTA nominated performance in the 2021 film C’mon C’mon, this young actor carries many scenes on his own and displays a wide range of complex emotions without ever becoming annoying or overtly precocious.
Cobweb feels like watching our childhood nightmares come to life. From its sinister house with noisy walls to Peter’s long nights alone in his darkened bedroom, several sequences are sure to provide nightmare fuel for days or even weeks to come. The final act unleashes blood and terror as sinister secrets are revealed and we come face to face with the tale’s true monsters. Cobweb is filled with the kind of illogical fright that kept many of us checking under our childhood beds for monsters or hiding under the covers through long, dark nights. It may require some suspension of disbelief, but Bodin’s film perfectly captures the thrill of Halloween and the nostalgic horror of childhood legends that caused many of us to fall in love with horror in the first place.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.