PLOT: A young boy named Oliver who has trouble communicating verbally comes across a scary story featuring a terrifying creature, one whose presence begins to seep into the real world and attempt to claim Oliver as his own.
REVIEW: In the new horror film COME PLAY, writer/director Jacob Chase uses a freaky premise to explore how maybe putting so much reliance on our gadgets may not be the best idea. Not only do they cause us to distance ourselves from the very real people around us – seemingly making it more and more difficult for people to communicate properly nowadays – but there’s also no shortage of unsettling, downright evil content that over the course of the movie is manifested in the ghoulish creature known only as Larry (indeed among the scariest of human names). While those golden nuggets of themes are certainly worth analyzing, somewhere along the way, amidst the tech-driven scares and muddled storytelling you may find yourself losing interest and casually checking your phone to see what’s going on anywhere else in the world.
The brunt of the storytelling is focused on a young man named Oliver (Azhy Robertson), who struggles to communicate both literally and emotionally, and his mother, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), who is struggling to get her son to open up while juggling a separation from her husband (John Gallagher Jr.). Given his condition, Oliver feels completely different from everyone else. He can only verbally communicate using a series of buttons on his phone and spends most of his time watching only SpongeBob SquarePants. But very soon he comes across an eerie online tale, “The Misunderstood Monster” featuring a tall, gangly creature. Horror aficionados and anyone who keeps up with modern classics no doubt already sees the all-too-heavy correlations between this and Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK – although her monster existed via a far creepy storybook and had a much better fashion sense.
Much like the latter film, COME AND PLAY emphasizes the emotional distance between mother and son, with the former feeling she is to blame for his current condition. Matters are made worse as Larry begins to have a greater and greater impact in the real world, which comes in the form of spooky scenes that play out through the lens of whatever phone or tablet Oliver points into a dark corner. Newcomer Robertson easily earns the immense sympathy we should feel for the character, with not a single word in the script to guide him, conveying deep fear, insecurity and emotional turmoil. Jacobs too does turn in solid work as the mother at her wit’s end, feeling guilt and perhaps hopelessness with no one but a mostly useless husband for help.
But the problem is not with the actors so much as it is the execution of the story that they’re trapped in. Chase has the best intentions at heart when digging into the themes he presents, and he crafts a few meaningful moments that ensure that the most compelling aspects are the ones that have nothing to do with the creature-feature trappings. But these moments are merely sprinkled across the canvas, and when looking at the piece as a whole it’s very clear Chase didn’t quite know how to make it all come together.
As Oliver makes more and more contact with Larry – a creature we learned manifested because of all the loneliness on the internet, and who really, really, wants a friend for himself – the idea seems to be that the closer he gets to him the further he gets away from other kids at school and his own parents. But as compelling an approach as that would be, the cycle of jump scares and escalating danger feel divorced from whatever depth Chase is trying to mine. While he has a bit of a knack for crafting some suspense, notably via one or two solid jump scares, whatever dimension this tension is supposed to add to the story is virtually non-existent – at least where it should count the most.
After a shared experience with terror, Oliver does begin to grow closer to his one time best friend, but where the real meat of the story should be – as a son/mother tale – it falls completely flat. Sarah spends time regretting a past decision we’re hinted to that supposedly caused her son’s condition, but the story never truly establishes the emotional stakes between her and Oliver. The latter spends most of his time experiencing the sheer terror of the creature, remaining the focus of virtually every fast-paced encounter that we’re pushed along to without much rhythm. For a movie about mother and son learning how to properly come together while overcoming a curse of the digital age, how the movie is plotted mostly contradicts that, treating the two of them like characters who simply find themselves fighting the same foe.
The story also involves Oliver’s father, Marty, and while Gallagher is a talented enough actor, I find it tough to view his character as anything more than a deadbeat. A parking lot attendant and seemingly a handyman, he too is brought into a fold but only to facilitate some of the bigger horror set-pieces. Again, the overall themes of connection and communication feel even less relevant when he’s around, his wife accurately pegging him down as a father who wants to be around for the fun but none of the work. He doesn’t get much of a chance to disprove her, and his existence feels unnecessary in the larger scheme of things and is best acknowledged as a means to an end that is wasteful when that time could’ve spent on the mother/son angle as it should’ve.
Even the presence of Larry doesn’t have the weight the creature could’ve. For a villain primed to lure Oliver away from his parents, doing which would’ve added some rewarding subtext, he doesn’t do much or work to influence Oliver other than to be a general creep lurking around the house. There’s a point where we’re meant to believe Oliver actually wants to go with Larry into the void, but aside from one fleeting moment, this is never built up to as a logical development. On the whole, Larry is a giant alien-looking creep who can only be seen via the camera lens of a device, he pops in for a few jump scares, and despite a gnarly design, feels wasted. This is disappointing for more scare-demanding horror fans, as Come Play’s one or two good scares are few and far between scares where the pitch is “the lights went out!”
For the vast majority of the runtime, Come Play is a mediocre horror-thriller that has some admirable intentions and perhaps enough to entertain true horror fans. But come the ludicrous finale that diminishes any chance for anything that resembles a meaningful, let alone logical, conclusion, everything about it feels like a wasted opportunity. An emotionally resonant, smart story; a villain worthy and admiration and fear; potential for great performances to become even more so. All squandered. If you’re looking to spend quality time with loved ones and friends, you can probably get a more worthwhile connection from sitting quietly in a room and staring at your phones.