Release Date(s)2020 (January 26, 2021)
Studio(s)Focus Features (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: N/A
Horror movies often use the telephone and electronic screens as sources of unspeakable terror. No scary houses, lurking vampires, or walking dead. The devices themselves are the objects of big-time trouble. The premise turns everyday conveniences into portals to the supernatural with dire consequences for their user. In The Ring, 976-Evil, Scream, and One Missed Call, for example, phones and screens become terrifying sources of dread. Come Play fits squarely into this sub-genre of movie horror.
Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a young autistic boy bullied at school and troubled at home by bickering parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher), who are torn over how best to deal with him. Oliver finds solace watching SpongeBob Squarepants on his smartphone. One day, an e-book called Misunderstood Monsters downloads on his screen. Clicking on the icon, he discovers a huge, gangly monster named Larry that emerges at night to prey on children’s fears. Larry wants a friend. So does Oliver. But Larry’s motive is hardly beneficent.
With most of the film resting on the young shoulders of Robertson, we experience the terror from his point of view. Oliver cannot speak. He can communicate only through an app that enunciates words for him, making brief sentences—the modern version of paper and pencil. Isolated and friendless because of his disability, he is particularly susceptible to Larry’s blandishments. The problem: if Larry can emerge from the screen into the real world, he will take Oliver.
Writer-director Jacob Chase expanded his 2017 short film Larry into this feature. It relies on many elements of the horror playbook—mysterious flashing lights, scary sounds, jump scares, clueless parents, and a barely seen monster. There are a few good moments, but the film as a whole lacks enough suspense to make it really percolate.
One of two major set pieces takes place during a sleepover that Sarah arranges for Oliver with three neighborhood boys. After every bulb in the house explodes, plunging the house into darkness, there appears to be an entity lurking in the shadows. The boys are terrified, and director Chase does manage to elicit some chills.
The second is set in a parking lot where Marty works at night. In a wide expanse of mostly open, empty concrete sits a booth. While Marty is trying to fix a flashing light fixture, we see outside a series of blowing newspaper pages forming a vertical pattern, suggesting that something otherworldly is out there. It’s unsettling that we seldom see any cars, and the creepy setting emphasizes the ubiquity of Larry. Eerie sounds and Marty’s escalating fear suggest the terror.
Another choice that works effectively is showing things from Larry’s point of view from inside the phone and tablet that Oliver uses. Peering through the glass with its moving video, Larry watches Oliver as the boy watches animated SpongeBob, with Larry patiently waiting for the right moment to reach out.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release from Universal is presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. Partly to create atmosphere and partly to obscure Larry, many scenes are deeply shadowed or set in darkness. Director Chase shows many close-ups of Oliver’s cell phone and tablet to emphasize his dependence on them. The color palette tends toward darker tones. School scenes, both indoor and outdoor, are brighter. Detail and overall clarity are very good, considering that so many scenes are set in partial darkness. There is enough light to see what’s happening in these scenes, such as Oliver terrified under his blanket, the boys in panic at the sleepover, and Oliver roaming through the house in the middle of the night. Blacks are rich and deep. Detail of faces, hair, patterns in clothing, and furnishings are visible. Car headlights flashing on and off and street lamps darkening in sequence suggest an unseen presence moving about.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio, with additional French and Spanish 5.1 DTS options. On the English track, dialogue is clear throughout. Oliver’s mutterings, grunts, and crying are his only audible reactions. Music is low and foreboding, as is typical of a horror movie score, with a few loud moments to heighten visual scares. Sound design is especially significant in building suspense. Light bulbs explode, footsteps are heard outside the parking lot booth as Marty ducks down in terror, car alarms go off in unison as unseen Larry passes them, and thumping, pounding treads indicate Larry’s presence. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There are no bonus materials on this PG-13 rated release. Twenty chapters are available for easy scene access. A Digital code is provided on a paper insert inside the package.
Despite a couple of creepy scenes, Come Play depends too little on atmosphere and too much on jump scares. The film is inconsistent and underdeveloped, flirting with bullying, marital discord, and disability, but never adequately integrating them. It attempts to be a jolting allegory on childhood loneliness and alienation but is ultimately bland and predictable.
- Dennis Seuling