Producers: Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman Director: Jacob Chase Screenplay: Jacob Chase Cast: Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Azhy Robertson, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, Eboni Booth, Rachel Wilson and Alana-Ashley Marques Distributor: Focus Features
You don’t expect a horror movie to be logical in any realistic sense, but what you have a right to expect is internal logic—that the pieces will fall into place within the plot’s own self-established rules. “Come Play” fails that test; it simply does whatever seems convenient at each moment to the makers whether it’s explicable within the confines of the story or not. The result is that though an attempt is made late in the game to explain matters, the movie is infuriating more often than frightening.
“Come Play” is another film that, like the recent “Don’t Look Back,” is expanded from a short film by the writer-director, in this case 2017’s “Larry.” In that eerie five-minute piece, a night-shift attendant in a parking lot booth found a tablet in the lost-and-found box with an e-book installed called “Misunderstood Monsters.” When activated, the book released a creature called Larry that claimed to be looking for a friend and threatened the man. Finis.
In extending that little vignette to feature length, Jacob Chase has taken a page—though in this case one converted into a technologically advanced format—from “The Babadook” and turned the guy in the booth into a secondary character, Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), whose marriage to Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) is falling apart. They’re on the verge of separating, and the situation is taking an emotional toll on their little son Oliver (Azhy Robertson), an autistic child unable to speak. Bullied at school by three boys—Winslow Fegley’s Byron, Jayden Marine’s Mateo and Gavin MacIver-Wright’s Zach—he loses his cell phone, on which the Misunderstood Monsters book has already appeared, beckoning to him—though he hasn’t yet summoned Larry into the “real” world, preferring to watch Spongebob Squarepants. The device was extraordinarily important to him, as it boasted a text-to-talk app that gave the boy some ability to communicate in class.
As in the short, Marty spies a tablet in his booth’s lost-and-found box and brings it home for Oliver as a replacement before packing up and moving out. Now, as Sarah tries to get Oliver to socialize—she even obtusely invites Byron, Mateo and Zach over for a sleepover, a night that predictably does not go well—Larry, who seems to travel, at least initially, via electrical impulses (lights flicker and go out as he moves about) emerges in full, and things get spookier and more dangerous. There’s a car crash—apparently engineered by Larry–in which Marty is seriously injured, and it’s pretty much up to Sarah to save her boy from the creature, which apparently intends to spirit his unwilling new friend away to some other plane of existence.
“Come Play” is intended as a parable about the perils of loneliness—Oliver is an isolated child yearning for human contact and heavily dependent on technology as compensation, while Larry is portrayed as something that at least claims to be searching for a BFF. (The link between them is cleverly italicized at one point, when non-verbal Larry, having migrated to a television screen, communicates by stringing together words from different broadcasts into sentences.) But what it seems to imply about autistic children as potential conduits for evil is rather unseemly, and the ending—which apes the conclusion of “The Exorcist,” which was the weakest element of that film—makes little sense in the context of what the script has been telling us all along. (Larry, it appears, is willing to accept substitutions.) The resolution of the bullying subplot, moreover, is so ridiculously pat that one suspects Chase simply decided it wasn’t worth taking seriously.
Jacobs and Gallagher bring a lot of wild, unfocused intensity to Oliver’s parents, and Robertson, who was impressive as the tyke who was the focus of his dueling, divorcing parents in “Marriage Story,” makes a sympathetic young protagonist. Larry, too—described in the credits as being a joint effort of four puppeteers, though CGI was also clearly involved—is pretty creepy. One certainly can’t fault the work of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, production designer David J. Bomba or editor Gregory Plotkin overmuch; they do as well as anyone could have with a screenplay that’s really a random mishmash of assorted horror effects trying to be simultaneously an affecting portrait of family dysfunction and a spooky creature feature. And composer Roque Baños does what he can to inject some tension into the piece.
But like so many short films turned into features, “Come Play” is an elaboration that takes what was intriguing in brief form and transforms it into something that feels rather derivative and flabby.