Synopsis: A monster targets a non-verbal autistic boy along with his family and friends by manifesting through their smart phones, computers, and other electronic devices.
Stars: John Gallagher Jr., Gillian Jacobs, Azhy Robertson, Rachel Wilson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Alana-Ashley Marques
Director: Jacob Chase
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Too often, it feels like we think of horror on a grander scale than it has to be. Why must everything be catered to the masses or to what a certain demographic wants to see on the big screen? Sometimes it’s nice to push play on a scary movie that feels like it was targeted for a particular group of viewers, maybe not even your own, but at least you come away with the impression the filmmaker(s) knows their audience they’re seeking screams from. The best place to find examples of this is in horror shorts that pop up on festival circuits, carefully curated bite-sized morsels that are compact in size but jam-packed with tension.
In recent years, a number of these shorts that were so well received at global festivals have caught the eye of studios looking for projects that aren’t going to cost them an arm and a leg to produce. After all, horror is the genre that regularly pays for itself in the opening weekend box office receipts so why not pick a young talent out of the crowd, give them their big break, and maybe make a little money out of the deal in the end? That’s how we came to get 2013’s Mama from director Andy Muschietti who would go on to direct the 2017 blockbuster remake of IT and it’s less-successful 2019 sequel. It’s also how David F. Sandberg expanded his 2013 freaky short Lights Out into a full-length 2016 film and parlayed that into directing gigs on the well-received Annabelle: Creation and hit superhero movie Shazam!.
Before Come Play crossed my desk, I’d never heard of Larry, the 2017 five-minute short from writer/director Jacob Chase that he expanded into this new film released from Focus Features and Amblin Partners. (You can watch it below) Knowing that a number of these short film inspirations would recreate or gently rework their original scenes in their longer film, I deliberately kept away from watching the short film until after and I’m glad I did. The short film is all about scares (and good ones, too) while Chase has struggled with the expansion of his idea, showing that not all shorts can make the leap to long-form and consistently maintain what made them so special to begin with. Admittedly, Come Play has its moments to admire and maintains a slick shine of a filmmaker with promise, but it’s lost a valuable simplicity of design in favor of efficiency of storytelling.
Young Oliver (Azhy Robertson, Marriage Story) is a non-verbal autistic who communicates chiefly through an app on his phone that speaks his words for him. This has created an attachment to the electronic device that is both regrettable and necessary at the same time. His deep dependency on his technology has even distracted him from the situation developing in his own home because his parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, Life of the Party) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr., Underwater) are in the middle of a separation. She’s frustrated from always being the enforcer of rules and watching Marty sweep in to be the “good” parent; he doesn’t want to say it, but deep down hasn’t fully accepted his son’s diagnosis.
Late at night, Oliver’s phone suddenly displays a new program, a story he can swipe through about an unhappy monster named Larry who has no friends. Curious to Larry’s tale of woe and feeling a sense of kinship to the friendless outsider, Oliver progresses through the e-book and the further he goes, the more strange things begin to happen around him. Lights flicker, objects move, a Snapchat filter picks up more than just Oliver’s face as he stands next to a dark closet…all leading to a fateful sleepover between Oliver and several kids from his class that normally bully him. The four boys also read the book to terrifying and lasting consequences.
Up until this point, Chase has built up a nice amount of suspense as Oliver is essentially stranded alone to face whatever evil entity Larry is. His dad has moved out and his mom doesn’t understand his fears, pushing him to socialize more for her benefit than his. Chase introduces some interesting dynamic between this mother-son relationship but never truly cracks the code, and sadly that’s mostly the fault of Jacobs who is completely miscast as Oliver’s overstressed mother. Her line readings are so bad and insincere you almost wonder if she was trying to make her character sarcastic and Chase or his editor cut the film incorrectly to make her look bad. It’s a performance that has a large impact in breaking the film in two, with Jacobs on one side and the rest of the cast on the other.
The more we learn about Larry the less the creature manifesting in front of us begins to make sense or follow whatever rules Chase has designed…if any are given at all. One moment he has set his sights on Oliver and the next, he’s after Marty at his nighttime job as a parking lot attendant. There are two scenes set here and they’re arguably the ones that will give you best case of the shivers…so it’s no coincidence the original short film was the inspiration for these passages. Strange, then, that Chase didn’t include the best scare from that short in his feature…because it was a doozy. You would think he’d at least include that.
There are some good things to report, though. Child actors can be the absolute worst but Chase lucked out with not one but four good kids cast in roles. I cannot imagine how impenetrable that sleepover scene would have been if those kids had been impossible to watch, but they play the dialogue and rising fear so well without becoming obnoxious that you have to applaud their performances. The scares are decent too, with a number of shocks that don’t come with loud music stings or unknown haunters jumping out at you – it’s often what you aren’t seeing or just the suggestion of a presence that sends you sliding down in your seat. As much as I disliked Jacobs, she’s part of a visual near the end that is truly nightmare-inducing.
The good news bad news here is that Come Play is overall a fine film and that’s why I’m rating it higher than you might think after reading the review. It stumbles a bit during its last act and doesn’t have a finale that feels fully explored but Chase has crafted a well-made, technically sound film if you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture. I missed a simpler brand of storytelling in favor of a deeper complexity with a “message” that made it more than it needed to be, but for the audience it is aiming to please I think it mostly makes it up the hill it chugs up for 90-some odd minutes. There’s definitely a spark in Chase that studios should explore and for a Halloween option new release, Come Play might be worth inviting your friends over for.
The original short film, Larry, from director Jacob Chase.