If “Barbarian” handily won as last year’s premier monster-in-the-basement movie, 2023’s prize might well end up going to “Cobweb” — a less inspired effort, but one decently creepy enough to get the job done. Chris Thomas Devlin’s script feels like a composite of some prior horror conceits, and there is not much depth to the narrative or characters. Still, director Samuel Bodin’s first theatrical feature is atmospheric, and departs from stock slasher conventions just enough to make for an entertaining if unexceptional scarefest. Lionsgate is releasing the U.S.-produced feature (which was apparently shot in Bulgaria in 2020) to limited theaters on July 21.
It begins with the familiar device of a child having night terrors that are probably not entirely in his or her imagination. Eight-year-old Peter (Woody Norman, from “C’mon C’mon”) is a sad loner, bullied at school, who’s woken from sleep by noises seemingly behind his bedroom wall — it sounds like something or somebody is moving around back there. When he taps on the wall, “it” taps back, which sends him screaming to his parents. But they dismiss it as an old house’s bumps in the night.
When Peter’s new substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) grows concerned about his well-being — a routine class assignment gets a classic “cry for help” crayon drawing from him — she pays an unannounced home visit. Mom Carol (Lizzy Caplan, fresh from TV’s “Fatal Attraction” adaptation) seems “off,” even as she eagerly blames any signs of distress on her son’s “overactive imagination.” Nor is shady dad Mark (Antony Starr) any more reassuring in a followup visit.
We begin to suspect the real menace here is Peter’s parents: By now the presence behind the wall has begun talking to him, claiming to be their prisoner, asking him to “help me escape.” But we, and Peter, turn out to be mistaken about some things… sort of. Actually, the screenplay by Devlin, who also wrote last year’s iffy “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboot, does not provide the kind of logic that holds up under scrutiny, or much explanatory backstory.
Sometimes backlit like gothic ghouls, Caplan and Starr give performances on the verge of villainous fairytale caricature, making some of “Cobweb” reminiscent of Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs,” albeit without that film’s command of a black-comedy tilt. And when a not-entirely-surprising twist reveals the true menace here to lie elsewhere (en route doling out severe justice to some of Peter’s school bullies, led by Luke Busey), that requires a whole new arena of disbelief-suspension from the viewer.
But “Cobweb” lives in the moment, not in reflection after the credits have rolled. And as such, it is pretty tense, as DP Philip Lozano’s camera prowls around the sinister hallways and hidden spaces of production designer Alan Gilmore’s decrepit domestic environ. With most action confined to the family home, Bulgaria passes well enough for Anytown, U.S.A., and technical contributions all around are well-handled. When all hell breaks loose, and this becomes a kind of creature feature, the lack of original (or particularly well-worked-out) ideas is compensated for by sufficient intensity of R-rated, FX-deploying violent action.
It’s unfortunate that the film ends with a particularly desultory non-ending — the kind that both teases a sequel and leaves you indifferent to seeing it. But by then “Cobweb” has fulfilled its obligations with just enough artistry and energy to leave audiences feeling sated.