Come Play Movie Review

Written by Stuart D. Monroe

Released by Focus Features

come play poster large

Written and directed by Jacob Chase
2020, 96 minutes, Rated PG-13
Released on October 30th, 2020

Azhy Robertson as Oliver
Gillian Jacobs as Sarah
John Gallagher Jr. as Marty
Winslow Fegley as Byron
Jayden Marine as Mateo
Gavin McIver-Wright as Zach
Rachel Wilson as Jennifer

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It’s a given that when you have a PG-13 (or God forbid a PG) horror film, you’re going to have a trade-off. Sure, it is. You’re going to take a different tone and go for somber, intense scares. Gone are the half-naked girls and guys; gone are the buckets of blood. You must deliver on the level of atmosphere, rising tension, jump scares (of course), and character depth.

At least, that’s my take on it. Writer/director Jacob Chase (in his feature debut) must have been reading my mind, because Come Play legitimately delivers a film that will be remembered as one of the major bright spots of 2020. It’s a film that takes cues from Mama, A Quiet Place, Lights Out, and the original Poltergeist.

Did I just invoke the name of Poltergeist? You’re goddamn right I did. Stay with me here.

Oliver (Azhy Robertson; Marriage Story) always lives his life with an electronic device in his hands. Not for nothing, it’s more of a safety blanket for Oliver than it is the rest of us. Oliver is autistic and non-verbal; his phone is loaded with a program that allows him to use his phone as his voice. Along with more Spongebob videos than one human being should be asked to handle, Oliver’s device provides him everything he needs to interact with the world when he wants and retreat when he needs to. His mother, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs; Community), can’t even get him to look her in the eyes. She’s over-stressed and about to break. His father, Marty (John Gallagher Jr; 10 Cloverfield Lane), is the classic hero – he works all the time while mom pulls her hair out before getting to swoop in and be the hero. It’s a tale as old as time, but Oliver is in serious danger. His tablet has been inhabited by Larry, a creature from “somewhere else” who’s on the other side of the screen. He’s lonely as hell, and he needs a friend. Once Larry decides he wants you for a friend, however, he becomes impossible to escape. Everyone thinks Oliver is crazy…until they read Larry’s story, too. Then they discover that the electronic devices we all hold so dear can be a window to “somewhere else”. They can even be a door. All you have to do is finish the story.

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Come Play is that elusive PG-13 horror film that flies in the face of the notion that you have to be R-rated to be effective. Of course, there are the prerequisite jump scares galore. No shocker there, but they are well-timed and extremely effective. The similarities between Come Play and the boatloads of other soft horror dreck stop there, however. It’s a super smooth film filled with tension that builds to a tightly wound crescendo that comes complete with false finishes that will make that friend who hates horror (c’mon, we all have one) wish that the movie would just end.

The facial recognition gag from Shudder’s hit film Host is put to great use in the early going. The vast majority of the creature work is CGI (with some select physical work from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), and it’s a killer example of high-dollar horror done right. Larry is pure nightmare fuel; he’s actually so deformed, twisted, and spindly that you couldn’t even get Javier Botet or Doug Jones to play him!

Sound design also plays a major part in Larry’s presentation. Whenever he moves, it sounds like every bone in his body is breaking fresh. He creaks. He sounds vaguely damp and slimy. You’re hoping he doesn’t actually speak, and when he does, it’s as bad as you’d feared. The music is minimal because you need to be able to hear all those things you don’t want to as you try to figure out where the noise is coming from.

Lighting is the other factor in not only making Larry a creature that will freak everyone out but also in creating his mythology and mechanics. There are so many flickering and busted light bulbs in Come Play that it’s nearly overkill, but it’s overkill with a purpose. The story of Larry is well thought out and terrifying in its simplicity.

All that glorious creature work is for naught, though, if you don’t care about the main characters. The family at the core of the story is a fully realized and painfully human family unit dealing with the challenges of extreme autism in a world that’s too caught up in its own bullshit to care one way or the other. Azhy Robertson gives a five-star performance without uttering a word; you want to protect him on sight. Gillian Jacobs plays the frayed and tattered mother perfectly, and John Gallagher Jr. is every clueless dad you’ve ever seen (even if the portrayal is more than a bit on the nose). Come Play is bolstered by the addition of a group of talented children that go from bully to believer in one of the most smartly delivered sleepover horror shows you’ll ever see. You’ll love Come Play for breaking the trope of Oliver being the only one who sees it – everyone sees Larry once they start reading his story.

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That aforementioned Poltergeist comparison? The first half shows the 1982 classic, PG-rated horror film as a clear influence. The “changing of the light bulbs” scene is a masterwork in simple scares learned from Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. Once Larry starts to show himself, the vibe becomes more in the vein of A Quiet Place. It’s a transition that occurs easily, almost without you actively noticing. The first half has you watching the darkness in the corner; the second half has you listening intently as you try not to make a sound.

The story originated in a 2017 short film titled “Larry”, and in those five minutes you can see a story begging for expansion (much like Mama). The difference is that the ending doesn’t fall flat and hokey like Mama does. Come Play has an incredibly satisfying and emotional finish that makes perfect sense. What a concept!

The underlying theme of the dangers of too much screen time isn’t as subtle as it was back then, but how could it be? Everyone is a screen zombie today, after all. One thing is for sure, though: Come Play does for devices what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean or It Follows did for casual sex.

You’ve been warned. Just remember that you still have to have a screen to watch it.

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Movie: 4.5 Star Rating Cover

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Stuart D. Monroe
Staff Reviewer
Stuart D. Monroe is a man of many faces – father, husband, movie reviewer, published author of short horror, unsuccessful screenwriter (for now), rabid Clemson Tiger, Southern gentleman, and one hell of a model American who goes by the handle "Big Daddy Stu" or "Sir". He's also highly disturbed and wears that fact like a badge of honor. He is a lover of all things horror with a particular taste for the fare of the Italians and the British. He sometimes gets aroused watching the hardcore stuff, but doesn't bother worrying about whether he was a serial killer in a past life as worrying is for the weak. He was raised in the video stores of the '80s and '90s. The movie theater is his cathedral. He worships H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. When he writes, he listens obsessively to either classical music or the works of Goblin to stimulate the neural pathways. His favorite movie is Dawn of the Dead. His favorite book is IT. His favorite TV show is LOST.
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