Lionsgate’s new thriller ‘Cobweb’ is the kind of horror film fans live for: a tight, terrifying journey that’s full of surprises but plays well with the audience – there are plenty of twists and shocks, but no gimmicks in Chris Thomas Devlin’s screenplay. That script, which was blacklisted in 2018, follows 8-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) as he becomes convinced that his parents (Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr) are keeping a horrible secret — a secret connected to the wiretapping he hears from inside his wall. The premise is simple, but Devlin takes it in one unpredictable direction after another, keeping the characterizations and situations realistic enough for us to stay emotionally engaged as we let the story spiral into surreal and horrific worlds.
It’s a challenging tone to sustain, but the ingenuity of Devlin’s screenplay finds its visual corollary in Samuel Bodin’s direction. Bodin, best known for his Netflix series “Marianne,” makes his directorial debut with “Cobweb,” but his control over the audience is so total that he feels like a veteran of horror. This is the kind of film that takes an audience in the palm of its hand and squeezes it for 88 minutes, and that’s largely due to the precision of Bodin’s visual design, where every piece of architecture and furniture is just a little out of place. “Creating fear is always a matter of preparation and intention,” Bodin told IndieWire, adding that he wanted the film’s world to be artificial as if it existed in a snow globe. “It’s not grounded, it’s a weird little world.”
This meant an accumulation of both visual and aural exaggerations intended to keep audiences on their toes, from slightly oversized sets and unnaturally orange pumpkins to excessively creaky doors and aggressively busy wallpaper. Bodin also let his young protagonist dictate camera placement, with low-angle shots and compositions that obscured what the adults were doing. “I wanted to play with shadows to create that feeling you get when you’re a kid where you can hear your parents but not always see them or understand what they’re doing,” Bodin said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Danny in ‘The Shining’ and what he (Jennifer Kent) captured in ‘The Babadook’ about childhood.”
Bodin, who is French, has also embraced the strangeness of American culture as seen through his eyes. “It’s a Halloween movie, but Halloween doesn’t have the same place in my head and heart that it does for you,” said Bodin. “I look at it through films, through stories, but I have no personal experience. So if I’m being honest with myself, I know this won’t be close to the reality of Halloween in the US because I don’t know that reality. So let’s build something – and if we’re going to build a pumpkin patch, let’s make it an ocean of pumpkins with babies in blue against bright orange. We put a lot of color everywhere and don’t make it a dark film.
Bodin found that editing the film was where he was really able to build tension and where he encountered his greatest challenges. Without giving too much away, large parts of “The Web” involve interactions between two characters, one of which is not seen, although this often gave Bodin more options than were useful. “You can make that character behind the wall say whatever you want, and that can be a trap,” he said. “You tell yourself you can always find another way to do something in post-production.” Bodin tried to avoid relying too much on “fixing it in postproduction,” instead finding discipline in deciding when and how to reveal information to the audience on set. “For me it’s like telling a story around a fire. With every shot, I try to get everyone to experience the same nightmare the same way.”