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Tuesday, August 15, 2023

How ‘Cobweb’ Puts a Modern Twist on the Original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

The following article contains major spoilers for Cobweb.

When most of us think of fairy tales, we imagine singing princesses, magical monsters and enchanted castles. We’ve been conditioned by Disney to view these stories as life lessons or tales of empowerment, but the origin of the art form is much darker. A generalized type of folklore usually containing some sort of magical element, fairy tales have been passed down by oral tradition, changing over the years to reflect the time period. The term was first coined by Madame D’Aulnoy in her 1697 collection of French folklore, Les Contes des fées, but the tales most of us are familiar with come from the collections of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

First published in 1812, the stories collected for Children’s and Household Tales were much darker than the versions we see brought to life in Disney animated classics. For example, the first published version of “Cinderella” features the stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet in order to fit into the tiny glass shoe. Another tale aptly titled “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” presents several grisly scenarios in which children murder each other while acting out the roles of a butcher. Most modern fairy tales have seemingly lost their bite. The Grimms themselves removed some of the more salacious details for the second version of their famous collection and adaptations over the years have softened the edges of these classic tales to appeal to younger audiences. 

Samuel Bodin’s new film Cobweb brings the themes of the original fairy tales roaring back to life with a horrific take on the original classics. Following a young boy haunted by voices in his bedroom walls, Bodin uses the aesthetics of Grimm’s first collection to terrify rather than moralize. Magical details abound from the porridge-like soup the family eats in an old-fashioned kitchen to the crumbling house and rotting pumpkin patch in the backyard. Some imagery nods to nursery rhymes like the spider that crawls up beside Peter (Woody Norman) in his classroom or the Halloween masks reminiscent of the barnyard animals from Mother Goose rhymes. Set just before Halloween, much of the imagery is nostalgic October fare from jack-o-lanterns to old-fashioned princesses. However, the film’s most overt references date back to stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. 


Known as one of the most violent fairy tales of all time, “Bluebeard” is a bit of an anomaly. First published by Charles Perralt in 1967, the story was omitted from the Grimms’ second collection because of its French origins. However, the original tale has plenty of horror to go around. Bluebeard is a cruel nobleman who offers a large sum of money to take a local farmer’s daughter as his wife. At first hating her new husband, the young bride eventually learns to tolerate him though she cringes at the sight of his scraggly blue beard. Before leaving the castle Bluebeard allows his wife free reign of their home but forbids her from opening a single door leading to an underground chamber. Eventually, curiosity gets the better of her. She unlocks the door and finds the decomposing bodies of her husband’s previous wives hanging about the blood-splattered room. Quickly closing the door, she struggles to clean the telltale key that has fallen into a sticky pool of blood. 

Though many of the details differ, the plot of modern fairy tale Cobweb also revolves around the temptation of a locked door. As Peter befriends the voice in the walls, he learns that his parents, Mark (Antony Starr) and Carol (Lizzy Caplan), have locked his older sister away in a dark basement chamber. The entrance to her cell is hidden behind an old grandfather clock and only accessible with a key Carol keeps attached to her belt. When Peter finally gives into his curiosity, he finds a horror greater than anything he could have imagined. Stealing the bloodstained keys from his dying mother, he unlocks the door and finds that his sister is the true monster. His parents have kept her locked away to protect the world from her insatiable desire to kill. Mark and Carol may not be as villainous as Bluebeard, however both Peter and Bluebeard’s bride find their horror compounded after choosing to open a forbidden door. 

Little Red Riding Hood

Bodin’s nod to one of history’s most famous fairy tales is so subtle, one could easily miss it altogether. Peter frequently wears a faded red hoodie, an article of clothing reminiscent of another of Grimm’s heroines. The story of “Little Red Riding Hood” has been told and retold so many times that it’s easy to forget the underlying message: don’t trust wolves in disguise and never stray away from the path. The same morality can be taken from Cobweb as Peter is lured into danger by a murderous trickster disguised as a member of his family. Pretending to be Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, the hungry wolf eventually reveals his true nature and swallows the poor girl alive. A passing woodsman hears the beast snoring and cuts Red Riding Hood and her grandmother out of the wolf’s belly, saving both their lives. Cobweb ends with a similar structure as Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman), Peter’s virtuous teacher, arrives just in time to cut him out of the walls after he’s been swallowed by the sinister house. Peter can hardly be blamed for disobeying his creepy parents and his attempts to free his sister from a hellish prison are much more noble than Red Riding Hood’s detour through the wildflowers. However, Peter nearly meets a similar fate when he leaves the albeit nightmarish path laid out for him by Mark and Carol. 

Hansel and Gretel

Cobweb fairy tale Grimm

Before the film’s shocking conclusion, Cobweb most closely resembles the German fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” The tale of a brother and a sister struggling to survive a callous world pits innocent siblings against not only their neglectful parents, but a cannibalistic witch as well. With no money for food, Hansel and Gretel’s mother convinces their father to lose his children in the woods thus eliminating two additional mouths to feed. After using trails of pebbles to find their way back, the children eventually become lost and seek refuge in a magical cottage made of delicious treats. Unfortunately, the owner of this tasty house turns out to be the greater evil. She imprisons Hansel and begins fattening him up with plans to turn his body into a feast. Hansel is thankfully saved by his clever sister who pushes the witch into her own oven. 

Bodin directly references “Hansel and Gretel” in several ways. Miss Devine struggles to open a toaster oven in the teacher’s lounge, foreshadowing her eventual role as Peter’s surrogate sister. Hoping to kill rats in the walls, Mark lines the hallway with a trail of poison pellets, a path that leads Peter closer to danger. Other references are more thematic. Like Hansel and Gretel, Peter finds himself trapped in a world where parents cannot be trusted. Mark and Carol initially seem kind, but Peter overhears a frightening conversation that leads him to believe they plan to lock him away with his sister. The original fairy tale depicts the children’s mother as the more villainous parent, actively encouraging her husband to kill his children. Cobweb reverses this relationship though Carol does grow visibly wicked in the story’s final act.

Fairy tale expert Jack Zipes notes that stories collected by the Brothers Grimm frequently feature young siblings as protagonists, often struggling against villainous authority. Cobweb subverts this trope by revealing Peter’s sister to be the story’s greatest evil. What initially feels like a brother/sister alliance transforms into something altogether more sinister. Rather than save him from the witch’s clutches, Peter’s sister turns out to have been the witch all along, a devious monster plotting his demise. Taking on the role of a protective older sibling, Miss Devine swoops in to rescue Peter from the witch’s prison and pushes the vicious monster back into her own trap. 

The Frog Prince

Cobweb fairy tale horror

In addition to the fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel,” Cobweb also subverts the story of a young princess who loses her treasured ball in a well. When a frog living in this stone oasis hears her crying, the magical creature promises to retrieve the ball if the princess will take him out of the well and keep him as her companion. Once she has her ball back, the selfish girl tries to renege on her vow, but the frog follows her out of the well and reports her to the king. The princess’s father insists his daughter keep her word and she reluctantly takes the frog back to her bedchamber. The cursed animal then becomes a handsome prince and marries the princess, freeing himself from the spell of an evil witch. Cobweb may tell an entirely different story, but it begins with a lonely child tossing a ball near what will turn out to be a very dark well. 

Though we never see Peter lose the ball he bounces against his bedroom wall, we know that his sister eventually gains possession of it. She passes it back to him through a tiny hole near the floor in order to prove her existence to the frightened child. Like the frog, Peter’s sister has been trapped at the bottom of a cavernous hole, imprisoned by her ruthless parents. In order to escape, she offers to be her brother’s playmate and confidant, knowing that the poor boy is just as lonely on the other side of the wall. Unlike the fickle princess, Peter vows to help his new companion and kills his own parents to secure her freedom. Unfortunately, the sister behind the wall transforms into a hideous monster and tries to push Peter down the well in her place. 


Cobweb trailer

It’s not until the final act of Cobweb that these fairy tale references become impossible to ignore. When Peter finds himself imprisoned in the basement cell that once held his malevolent sister, he climbs to freedom using the only ladder available. After years trapped in the darkness, the creature’s hair has become long and wiry. Resembling an evil Rapunzel, she embarks on a killing spree throughout the house. As she nears the cage, Peter climbs up his sister’s long hair then drags the monster back down into the dungeon below. A nod to the classic story of a girl imprisoned by a cruel witch, Cobweb again adds a villainous edge to a familiar tale. 

“Rapunzel” begins with a pregnant woman craving delicious rampion from a witch’s nearby garden. After stealing the lettuce to satisfy his wife, the father-to-be pays for the food by giving the witch his newborn daughter. Separated from her parents, Rapunzel grows up imprisoned in a high tower visited only by Old Mother Gothel. With no doors or stairs to access the room, the witch climbs up Rapunzel’s long hair whenever she wants to see the poor girl she’s taken as her daughter. Eventually, a handsome prince stumbles upon the tower and tricks Rapunzel into letting her hair down for him. 

The original story sees Rapunzel become pregnant by the prince leading to Mother Gothel’s brutal revenge. After sweeping Rapunzel away, she surprises the prince who jumps out of the tower and blinds himself on the thorny bushes below. He wanders in the wilderness for many years before finding Rapunzel and their two children living in the forest. Weeping at the sight of her long-lost love, Rapunzel’s tears fall into his eyes and restore his sight. They return to his kingdom and live happily ever after. Cobweb has a significantly darker ending. Miss Devine frees Peter from his sister’s clutches and we’re led to believe that she will take care of him now that his parents are dead. But a final scene shows that Peter is not done living in fear. As they flee the house, his sister growls that she will eventually escape and come looking for the brother that betrayed her. He will spend the rest of his life wondering if today is the day she will finally enact her unspeakable revenge. 

In the introduction to his The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm All-New Third Edition, Zipes notes a common theme among the stories. Many of the protagonists are children victimized by corrupt kings, noblemen, witches, parents, and other adults in positions of power. When comparing Cobweb to these classic stories, we find this is true for Peter as well. Nearly every adult in the story fails him. It’s the substitute teacher, herself an outsider and coded as a child, that comes to his aid. Like the original fairy tales, Cobweb is not a children’s story, however it does allow us to tap into the fear and vulnerability of our youth. By presenting classic folklore through a horrific lens, Bodin reminds us that we must be careful who we trust because the people we believe will protect us from the monsters often turn out to be the monsters themselves.

Cobweb is now available on VOD outlets.

Cobweb rotting pumpkin patch

The post How ‘Cobweb’ Puts a Modern Twist on the Original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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