Is one actor a good enough reason to watch a horror movie? That decision is between you and the Elder Gods, but Cobweb, the new horror film out this weekend hoping to nab anyone not caught up in Barbenheimer mania, makes a pretty strong case for The Boys’ Antony Starr as a horror movie icon — until it abandons him for something less scary.
Cobweb follows Peter (Woody Norman), a troubled young boy whose life reads a lot like the start of a sad fairy tale. He lives with his parents, Mark (Starr, The Boys’ Homelander) and Carol (Lizzy Caplan), in a big old house that seems devoid of a lot of the modern pleasures his friends probably enjoy. He doesn’t really go out, watch TV, or play video games. His parents keep a pumpkin patch, which seems to be the only thing they do together. And when Peter is in trouble, they lock him in the basement.
The family at the center of Cobweb initially seems like the mystery the film is built around, especially when Peter starts hearing a voice speaking to him from his bedroom walls. Peter befriends the voice, and learns that there may be things about his parents he doesn’t know. For a good chunk of Cobweb’s 90-minute run time, it seems like it’s building to a revelation about them. Unfortunately, the film’s most compelling questions don’t ever get answered.
In its third act, Cobweb pivots to another kind of horror entirely, abruptly trading the palpable fear of a child whose parents may be secretly sinister for a goofier monster movie. As inelegant as that transition is, it isn’t unwelcome. The film’s script, full of obvious cues and terrible grade-schooler dialogue where schoolyard bullies threaten Peter like they’re fellow inmates in gen pop, simply can’t support the domestic dread in the first two-thirds of the movie.
Yet it isn’t hard to imagine a version of the film that does nail this, mostly off the strength of Antony Starr’s performance as Mark, and Woody Norman’s wide-eyed innocence opposite him. As Mark, Starr brings the kind of warm menace he wields so well as Homelander to a quieter setting, and it translates incredibly well. Starr excels at portraying disturbed men who have learned to wear normalcy like a mask, though his characters sometimes forget to properly secure it. So it’s a shame that Cobweb isn’t particularly concerned with his character — or Lizzy Caplan’s, for that matter.
These twin performances are all Cobweb really has going for it, as first-time feature director Samuel Bodin makes aesthetic choices that mostly seem geared toward making a little bit of money go a long way, without any sense of style. Bodin attempts to invoke dread with long shots of the film’s few distinctive set elements — the aforementioned pumpkin patch, or an old grandfather clock and icebox that each hide a hidden passage — but he doesn’t do much to render those images as something powerful or sinister. It’s as if Cobweb is set in a haunted house where nothing actually happened long ago, even as it hides a girl’s voice in its walls.
When Cobweb pivots to a monster movie for its finale — and a bafflingly abrupt ending — it ditches those performances in favor of a creature that highlights the film’s limitations. A monster is frightening, sure. But it’s much scarier to see an actor like Starr enter a room with a child and feel a frightening sense of threat. With him in the mix, anything might happen next — even if he’s just smiling and pulling his son in for a hug.
Cobweb will premiere in theaters in a limited release on July 21.