Summerween is upon us! Certain dark corners of social media are already anticipating the cool, crisp autumn season, stores like Home Goods and TJ Maxx are stocking their shelves with spooky décor, and if one hunts hard enough, they may actually find the heralded Pumpkin Spice Latte on the menu of an over-eager coffee shop. Keeping all that in mind, one may be able to forgive Lionsgate for releasing their Halloween-themed horror feature, COBWEB, smack dab in the dead of the July summer heat. However, after having seen it, one suspects their strategy may actually have been to keep it buried… by releasing it on the highly anticipated “Barbenheimer” movie event weekend.
The film sets up and checks off every possible box (almost too well) on a long list of autumnal imagery. From crunchy autumn leaves to nostalgic elementary school classroom Halloween decorations, to a garden full of rotting, festering pumpkins, to nods to classic horror films (including a couple of not-so-subtle allusions to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN), the film is certain to satisfy the spirit of any spook-o-phile. Yet, despite its cozy, flannel-donning appearance, something is lacking from the mystery/chiller, particularly in its last fifteen minutes.
The story is simple: Peter (Woody Norman, C’MON, C’MON) is a young, shy, bullied little boy who lives in a house full of secrets and walls full of creepy sounds with his overbearing, weird parents, portrayed by Lizzie Caplan (MEAN GIRLS) and Antony Starr (THE BOYS) — more on them later. Surrounded by questions, eerie goings-on, and a home that clearly shares an interior decorator with Norman Bates & The Addams Family, Peter slowly discovers what’s making those sounds behind the walls (but, in terms of pacing, perhaps not quite slowly enough.)
The film is gorgeous to look at. Truly. Ivan Ranghelov’s art direction and Arta Tozzi’s set decoration are spectacular. (Do you do house calls, Mr. Ranghelov & Ms. Tozzi?) and costume/wardrobe by Marina Proykova create a picture-perfect Halloween setting. The use of negative space and back-lighting is reminiscent of the glow of the perfect jack-o-lantern, casting creepy shadows in the most creative of spaces. The film is all at once cozy, warm, and beautiful to look at, yet also deeply unsettling. Atmosphere is the name of the game in this film, and it’s oozing with it.
As Peter’s mother, Carol, Caplan is at her best. Giving a late-in-her-career-Joan-Crawford-esque-melodramatic performance, she’s in a film all by herself (perhaps a better one). She tiptoes on the edge of bizarre, beckoning memories of her grossly-overlooked turn as Stephen King’s iconic Annie Wilkes in season two of CASTLE ROCK. As her husband, Mark, Starr juggles his handsome charm and innate, unsettling creepiness in a manner quite different from that of his evil superhero, Homelander. Together, with the heaps of eerie tone and atmosphere dripping from the screen, they carry the film. Like Peter, young Norman does his best with what he’s given. He is, unfortunately, perhaps — and at no fault of his own — the least interesting character in the film.
The movie carries itself in a just-serious-enough manner until its final moments when it suddenly feels simultaneously under and overwritten. The pivotal reveal is a letdown, almost as though written by some Blumhouse reject who hadn’t read the rest of the script. It’s a true disappointment to have worked so hard to have created something so unique and beautifully macabre to throw it away for a rushed ending we’ve seen before (probably in a Blumhouse movie).
All this is to say; the film may stand a chance at finding its audience come the Halloween season. Its themes of what we learn from our parents, the narcissism of parenting, the disappointment of being a parent, and the fears instilled in all of us by our parents, will resonate with formerly quiet, shy, bullied kids like Peter. As much of a disappointment as its ending is, the road getting there is full of tricks and treats that are sure to satisfy.
COBWEB is currently playing in theaters.