Director: Jacob Chase
Notable Cast: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr, Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright
One of the more perplexing things that has happened since the re-opening of theaters after the pandemic started was that the films that are getting released truly feel dumped onto screens. Most of the bigger titles have shifted out to 2021 or later and what’s left is a hodgepodge of various genre titles that have been given approximately zero real marketing. Studios and producers are terrified to spend any more money on these titles. This leaves some decent films high and dry to cling onto life in a theatrical setting that might be appropriately labeled as a cinematic graveyard.
Come Play falls squarely into this category. In the grand aspect of horror released in 2020, it lands firmly in the middle of the pack, but it’s a decent film that deserves better than the desolate wasteland of attention it has received thus far. Come Play is a Babadook’d spin on Lights Out, if one were to boil it down, but even in that simplistic comparison the film works. With some decent atmospheric scares, a fascinating monster design, and a sold dose of familial heart in its plot, Come Play is a horror flick that may not ultimately be one of the best of the year, but it does work.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Come Play is that it hammers down the feeling of a mainstream horror film and doesn’t do anything truly outside of the norm. The joke above about Lights Out being Babadook’d holds up and anyone that has seen both of those films will immediately see what Come Play is working with here. A married couple is struggling to fix their marriage while their autistic son, who struggles to communicate, is at his own crossroads as his friends become bullies and his parents figure out what life looks like for them. The core familial drama is one that will be overly familiar and while the performances are solid enough, particularly from mother (Jacobs) and son (Robertson), the heart and soul of the film can be predictable for the horror fanatics out there. When they work, it’s an impressively heartfelt film and the relationships of the characters define the narrative, but moments where it struggles, i.e. the bully/friend subplot, it careens into going through the motions.
If that is where Come Play tends to trip up in delivering its messages, where it succeeds is in the creature feature that is running parallel to its themes of modern childhood strife. In their son’s struggle to find his place, a creature named Larry arrives to claim him as a friend. Like the previously mentioned Lights Out, the monster of the film is far more representative of an idea, in this case, loneliness, than a creature with grounded and real-world origins. Larry arrives through the windows of electronic screens and it’s through an e-book (I know, I know – it works much better than expected) that he is able to start to enter the real world to kidnap our young protagonist back into some kind of digital ether. The design of Larry and the e-book are incredible. Simple ideas often work the best if a director is able to build the atmosphere around them and that’s exactly how Jacob Chase approaches it here. Larry is never really shown, although the long-distance or extreme close up shots caked in shadow add to the terror of his gangly and emaciated look, and the artwork in the book fills in some of the blanks. A sequence where the son has a few friends over for a forced sleepover stands out to exactly why this film has the right ideas. While the logic behind Larry and how he arrives and the powers he has are often fluid, leading to a few ‘what the hell is going on’ moments, in the moment Come Play delivers on its chills even if it often lacks cohesive rules.
Come Play saunters through quite a bit of familiar territory, riding on the coattails of some modern horror hits, but a strong sense of direction, solid performances, and a fantastic creature design make it worth the watch. Don’t go in expecting some of the loftier heights of some of the other horror films this year, but with the right intentions there are quite a few things to enjoy. It's not the film dumped into theaters that a release with no real marketing would imply.