Come Play

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/30/20 01:50:23

"Screen And Screen Again"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The last few months have seen a number of horror films that might have made for interesting hour-long episodes of genre-based anthology shows like “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” but which turned out to not quite have enough story to adequately fill out a feature-length running time. Now comes an exception to that trend in “Come Play,” in which writer-director Jacob Chase takes his 2017 short film “Larry,” which clocked in a a mere five minutes, and expands it to a full 90 with relative ease and success. The result is a slick and efficient work that makes up for the lack of elaborate trappings with enough ingenuity and skill to make for a decent enough chiller to watch this Halloween weekend.

The central character is Oliver Sutton (Azhy Robertson), an 8-year-old boy with nonverbal autism who is profoundly lonely—at school, he is inevitably teased by the other kids for being different and at home, he sees the marriage of his parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Bryon (John Gallagher Jr.), coming apart under the strain of trying to properly care for their son. Oliver’s only solace comes from his iPhone, which serves as both his primary form of communication and a safe place where he can retreat and watch episodes of “Spongebob Squarepants” when things become too overwhelming for him. However, it seems as if Oliver is not quite as alone as he thinks he is as it soon transpires that there is some entity on the other end of the screen who has taken quite an interest in him.

This would be Larry, a creature who, based on the description provided in the illustrated children’s e-book that mysteriously turns up on Oliver’s phone, appears to be Slender Man’s more awkward cousin and who is himself profoundly lonely and in need of a friend. Although Larry’s presence can be felt, he can only be seen via a screen but as each page of the story is read, he gets closer and closer to moving from the electronic world into the physical. His ultimate plan is to become Oliver’s friend and stick with him forever, whether he wants that or not. Needless to say, this does not go over well with Sarah and when she figures out Larry’s ultimate plan, she goes into overdrive to save her son—a tricky move since the very thing that Larry is using as his conduit is the only thing allowing Oliver to connect with the world.

Yeah, the basic premise of “Come Play” is a bit on the ridiculous side and horror buffs might readily conclude from the above description that the film is essentially a shotgun three-way marriage between “The Babadook,” “Lights Out” and “Mama.” Yeah, it doesn’t adequately explain the existence of Larry or his abilities and its nervous attitude towards the perils of technology give the story a weirdly dated feel at time. Yeah, the story does struggle to get over the finish line in terms of stretching out to feature length—there is a subplot over Sarah’s strained friendship with the mother of one of Oliver’s bullies that goes nowhere and a sequence in which Bryon is spooked by Larry at the isolated tollbooth where he works (which I understand was the focus of the original short) works the first time but is then repeated a couple of more times with greatly reduced effectiveness. Yeah, even the idea of naming your malevolent force Larry practically dares audiences to roll their eyes whenever he is invoked, no matter how tense the situation.

I recognize all of these issues and despite them all, I still found myself at least moderately engrossed by the film nevertheless. I liked the low-key vibe that Chase establishes that is reminiscent of one of the spookier Amblin films from the 80s and results in a number of decently staged scare sequences that succeeds because of sheer filmmaking style and not because of a bonanza of elaborate effects. I liked the ambiguous attitude that the screenplay has towards Larry for much of its running time—for a while, we cannot definitively figure out if he is a pure monster or an entity whose good intentions are misunderstood because of his approach. I liked the performances from Robertson and Jacobs, both of whom give their characters enough dramatic weight to keep the proceedings from devolving into silliness, which is important in a film that features people screaming maniacally into tablet and phone screens as if they were in a contemporary version of “The Twonky.” And even though the film does begin to lose its grip in the climactic scenes, I did like the final images that manage to be both unexpectedly lyrical and surprisingly satisfying.

There was a time when I would have referred to a modestly scaled genre programmer like “Come Play” as a B movie without a moment’s hesitation. However, at a time when almost everything seems to be either a part of an existing and elaborate franchise or trying to jump-start a new one of its own, to suggest that a movie has nothing more on its mind than to provide 90 minutes of moderate thrills and chills without the advent of a familiar property, a star-studded cast or elaborate visual effects almost makes it sound like it is somehow being lazy. That is not the case here because while the film may not go down as a classic anytime soon, it is a smooth and efficient work that has nothing more on its mind than to send a couple of shivers down the spines of viewers. Mission accomplished.

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