‘Come Play’ movie review: Clever, if long, tribute to horror classics ‘The Ring’, ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Babadook’

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  • Writer-director Jacob Chase’s Halloween-adjacent thriller touches on autism, bullying and the dangers of online technology
  • Netflix’ ‘Marriage Story’ actor Azhy Robertson stars in this PG13 scarer
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Oliver (Azhy Robertson) and his mum Sarah (Gillian Jacobs, left) face terrors earthly and otherwise. Photo: AP

To summarise Come Play in one sentence: A preteen on the autism spectrum, lonely and isolated, becomes the online prey of an unwanted stranger, a monster from another realm.

The results of these ingredients unfold more like a collection of reference points to previous films than a film unto itself. But this PG-13 offering showcases a filmmaker of legitimate visual skills and a facility for jump-scares cut and timed just so.

The first minute of writer-director Jacob Chase’s Halloween-adjacent thriller makes no mystery about where the wild thing is. A wheezing, rasping creature, unseen, lurks behind an iPhone screen as it streams an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, the go-to show for our hero, Oliver, played by Azhy Robertson of Netflix’ Marriage Story.

Larry, the online lurker, feeds on electricity, and can hop from light source to light source, smartphone to tablet. He lures Oliver by putting a rhyming children’s story on the screen when Oliver least expects it. It’s a tale of a misunderstood, alien-like being who just wants a companion so he can leave his world and enter the Earth realm.

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Come Play takes it from there. Oliver’s parents, Sarah (Community’s Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr), argue and furtively plan to get separated, driving their son further into his shell. The boy suffers humiliation and bullying from his peers, three of whom are forced to participate in a parent-driven sleepover where sceptics becomes horrified believers in Larry.

Chase puts his young, mostly non-verbal protagonist through the wringer, and through ideas borrowed from, among others, The Ring, Poltergeist and The Babadook. That last one, a terrific Australian horror film, works on the same idea of a storybook creation springing off the page and into the home of a mother and a son.

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The movie comes from Chase’s more comically inclined five-minute short Larry. This full-length adaptation runs a little long – it’s crying out to be an 80-minute quickie rather than a 105-minute entity – but Jacobs is compelling throughout, even when her character behaves like no parent of a child with special needs should behave.

In his frequent, pop-eyed terror, Robertson is reminiscent of Danny Lloyd in The Shining, albeit in more confined spaces. Chase shoots entire scare sequences inside the car park booth where the father works, for example, or in the front seat of a pickup truck.

Even if you don’t love the movie’s rather cruel emotional tactics (what else is new, in horror?) and Oliver’s frequent audible and visible anguish, you can admire the execution. The filmmaker made a previous feature, The Four-Faced Liar, a decade ago. He shouldn’t have to wait a decade for his next one; it’s also really gratifying that someone made a movie – derivative yet imaginative – fully exploiting the manic, nightmarish undertones of SpongeBob.

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