“We had a lot of literary references actually; lots of fairytales – you know, these parents… they are not normal parents,” director Samuel Bodin teases of Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr’s characters in his feature-length debut Cobweb. You can say that again.
Also starring Cleopatra Coleman and Woody Norman, the curly-haired cutie who played Joaquin Phoenix’s nephew in C’mon C’mon, the new horror flick follows eight-year-old Peter, who finds his world creepily begin to unravel after he starts hearing knocking coming from his bedroom wall every night. His mom and dad – the former, overbearing and robotic, whilst the latter, cold and aggressive – try their best to convince him it’s just a consequence of their old house but their dismissiveness only leads Peter to investigate further, causing him to unearth some horrifying family secrets… starting with a skull buried deep in the pumpkin patch out back.
“It’s so hard to come across scripts like it; it was simple. You know, a simple story is very difficult to write. When I read it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s cool, it’s twisted, it’s simple, but with such beautiful naivety’ and I definitely felt like I had something to bring to the story,” Bodin explains to GamesRadar+. “It already had that mythical feel but I really wanted to embrace and amplify it. I love to work with stories that have a, sort of, a snowglobe quality to them. I love when you can present a tone that’s not based in reality, it’s not grounded – it almost exists in its own little bubble and you create your own little universe.
“It can be a problem sometimes, though. Sometimes my colleagues go, ‘Oh Sam, it’s not believable’. So, I have to be tough on myself. But it’s like The Simpsons and their little town, right?” he laughs. “You’re in their reality for a specific amount of time and then, bam, it finishes and your reality comes back. I love stories like that.”
While Bodin is certainly no stranger to horror, having created acclaimed Netflix series Marianne, with Cobweb, he notes how essential it was for him to be fond of its story from the get-go, given that it’s his first movie and the first project he directed without writing it. This time around, Chris Thomas Devlin penned the script – though Bodin did manage to squeeze in his own original nightmare sequence, which sees Peter imagine his parents as monstrous, long-fingered beings with devilish grins and is arguably one of the picture’s most spine-chilling scenes.
“It was a lot of first times for me because yes, it’s my first feature film but it was also my first job in English. As you know, making movies is 90% communication so it was an exercise,” he recalls. “But I really wanted to work with the US and work with a studio, and have that experience so I said, ‘Okay, I have to embrace the story of someone else to do that’.
“I was afraid beforehand, but it was really creative and there was always a discussion with everything. Choices were always made in a collaborative way,” continues Bodin. “It was not easy because I love writing. I feel more legitimate when it’s my story, you know? You write for two years then when you get onto set, you say, ‘Okay, I I know why I’m going over there…’ When it’s not your story, you tend to second guess a bit more and ask if things you’re doing are okay. I learned a lot of things; I still have a lot to learn but yes, I learned a lot of things.”
Bodin found inspiration in a variety of places for Cobweb, including Tim Burton titles and Brothers Grimm tales. Those familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman and The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Henry Selick won’t be surprised that he looked to Coraline a lot, too, which centers on an inquisitive young girl who stumbles across a portal to a strange, idealized version of her family and home – though things aren’t as perfect as they seem.
“I thought a lot about that animation when we were doing anything and how it distorts reality,” he remembers. “Aesthetically, too, it’s like that flat thing, right? It’s like a puppet show. Everything is a little off-kilter and no one is acting exactly as they should.” Other influences included John Carpenter’s Halloween, in terms of suspense and autumnal setting, and Stanley Kubrick’s “hypnotic” The Shining.
“I am a French guy, so I don’t have the same relationship with Halloween as Americans. For me, it’s a fantasy. I jumped into all of that,” Bodin admits. “Another movie I kept in my mind was The Night of the Hunter, because it really operates from the level of the eyes of kids. They used sets that were a little too small; too small for the camera. We tried to reproduce this kind of feeling, the feeling when you’re a kid and everything feels just a little too big.”
Committing to such a singular vision has its challenges but for Bodin, sometimes even just getting his ideas across to everyone on set proved the hardest part. He says he leaned on Norman, who was only nine at the time of shooting, to be his “translator” during production. “He deserves a medal for trusting me at the very beginning, because it was my first job in English – though he understood me better than all the crew. What’s so amazing with him is that he’s so in the present and always so aware. There’s no barrier; he was always so open in every scene.
“He’s very mature, and then when a scene is finished, it’s finished. That’s it. It’s a very simple approach to acting. My camera is attached to him for the entire movie so I was so lucky to find someone like Woody. The casting process was not easy, either, as it was during the pandemic so we did it all on Zoom; the first time we all met was on the set – well, one week before, we had one week of rehearsals – so it was quite the adventure.”
For the majority of its tight 88-minute runtime, Cobweb is an exercise in slow-burn tension and dread as Peter gradually learns more about what – or who – is behind the mysterious knocking, and why his parents are so insistent that it’s all in his head. But what’s so satisfying about the movie is that things suddenly switch ahead of its final act, leaning into more madcap, surprisingly gory mayhem as ugly truths – and a shock secondary antagonist – are revealed. You don’t necessarily see much of the bloody carnage but it’s wildly entertaining. Refreshing, too, given how often horrors fizzle out towards their end. It’s a pay-off that only works so well, though, thanks to the groundwork laid by the unique, sinister performances of Caplan and The Boys standout Starr.
“Chris put a lot of clues in his script. For example, the father and the mother have no names. It tells you immediately, ‘Okay, this is not realistic’, and it gives everything an other-worldly quality,” Bodin explains. “The character of Antony moves more naturally, but Lizzy’s role is more complicated because it takes a lot of turns. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with her.
“She’s a great actress, and she’s a war machine and a surgeon, you know, in a way? She has so much power, and she’s so precise. We kind of mapped out everything before shooting where it was like, ‘Okay, in that scene, I have to do that weirdly, and in the scene, I have to act normally,'” he chuckles. “It was like a race car track. Sometimes we would lose ourselves in the oddness a little bit and be encouraged to come back but it was great fun.” Hardly a surprise they’d occasionally get carried away; these really aren’t normal parents after all.
Cobweb releases in UK cinemas on Friday, September 1. For more, check out our list of the most exciting upcoming horror movies heading our way throughout the rest of 2023 and beyond.