Here’s a neat bit of counterprogramming opposite the Barbieheimer juggernaut.

Cobweb is a microbudget horror film (Is there any other kind nowadays?) from debut director Samuel Bodin, with a screenplay from Chris Thomas Devlin, late of the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre requel. (Yikes.) What’s more perplexing, this is a Point Grey production, meaning it was championed by producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, of all people.

This is the story of Peter (Woody Norman, late of the underrated C’mon C’mon), a young boy who’s a withdrawn and socially awkward bully target, but he’s creative and artistically talented… you know the type. The film opens with Peter hearing weird bumps and voices in his room late at night, and that’s not the weird part.

See, his parents are Carol and Mark, respectively played by Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr. Because when you want parental figures with a terrifying dark side over a sweet parental facade, who better than Annie Wilkes and the freaking Homelander?!

Predictably, Mark and Carol tell their son that everything is fine and it’s all in Peter’s imagination. Except they seem a little bit too forceful about it. At some point — it’s hard to tell exactly where — it feels like we’ve gone past reassurance and into outright gaslighting. But if they really are gaslighting their son, what in the nine hells are they covering up?

The other X factor here is Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman), the substitute teacher who takes notice of Peter’s struggles and tries her best to make sure he’s properly cared for. There’s no question that her heart is in the right place, but she’s only a teacher, and a substitute at that. Without any hard proof that anything is amiss, there’s only so much she can do.

That said, she could’ve done a bit more in the third act. Take note: If you go to someone’s house because you think they might be in danger, and you arrive to see the front door swinging open, call the fucking police! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On top of everything else, it’s coming up on Halloween eleven years after a girl down the street disappeared, Carol is controlling to the point of obsessive, Mark occasionally shows up with strange unexplained cuts on his arm, and the only sympathetic adult within reach may be powerless to help. The bottom line is that without anyone else to trust, Peter turns to the voice in his bedroom wall. Except there’s no telling who or what that voice is, or whether it really can be trusted.

This is definitely one of those “slow burn” plots in which something weird is going on and the whole film is about gradually uncovering what it is. Luckily, the setup is kept engaging through solid performances. As I alluded to before, Caplan and Starr are both well-practiced at dancing on the knife’s edge to keep us guessing when and how and which way they’ll snap. It speaks volumes that Caplan and Starr are both talented and charismatic enough to keep up the balancing act between nurturing and psychotic — and to keep it compelling — through an hour of runtime until everything finally unspools in the third act. I’ll happily grant that Norman is sympathetic enough to sell the main character’s development, and Coleman is sweetly endearing as well, but Caplan and Starr are very much the stars here.

We get a few jump scares here and there, but the sizable majority of the horror comes from atmosphere and suspense. The house itself is a dynamic character, major kudos to the production design team there. A shout-out is also due to Drum & Lace, who composed a delectably eerie score. (Joseph Bishara, eat your fucking heart out!) But again, so much of what keeps the second act scary is the mystery of what’s going on and the suspense of what will finally push our characters over the edge.

Then comes the third act, when everyone finally has to make their move. I’m genuinely happy to report that the payoff is worth the setup. We’ve got gut-churning kills. We’ve got reversals and plot twists. We’ve got jump scares that are genuinely well-executed.

Granted, there’s a red herring or two, but it’s nothing dealbreaking. I’ll also admit that the CGI is lackluster, but it comes with the microbudget territory. More importantly, the filmmakers are savvy enough to be strategic in showing exactly as much as they do for exactly as long as they do, and otherwise relying on fear of the unseen. And of course the story follows a boilerplate horror template dating all the way back to freaking “Jane Eyre”, but the execution counts for a lot.

I had a good time with Cobweb. The performances are captivating, the atmosphere is terrific, the scares and suspense are expertly crafted, and the brisk 90-minute runtime keeps the derivative slow-burn plot from getting stale. Overall, this is an admirable directing debut and I’d strongly recommend any horror fans to seek it out.

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