Come Play

“Once you take Larry’s hand, you’ll never be alone again.”

Misunderstood Monsters

Come Play is a very effective low-fi scare movie.  The movie is the first I’ve seen where the haunted is portrayed as autistic.  Oliver is a young autistic boy who has unwittingly attracted the attention of Larry, a ghoul from another dimension.  Larry wants Oliver to be his friend, and creates a picture book that, when someone reads it to the end, allows Larry to cross over into our world.  As Horror movie hooks go, the one used by Come Play is as incredulous as any other.  What elevates this movie above others is its excellent pacing, realistic direction and solid acting.  Similar to Insidious and Lights Out, what you don’t see is scarier than what you actually see.  Highly recommended.

Come Play is the story of a boy and his ghoul. Or is it a ghoul and his boy?  The movie is about the relationship between two lonely souls, Oliver and Larry.  Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a young, autistic boy who doesn’t speak and spends most of his time watching Spongebob Squarepants cartoons on his tablet.  Larry is a skeletal being from another dimension who is able to watch Oliver from the other side of the tablet screen.  Larry sees Oliver as a fellow “misunderstood monster”, and wants Oliver to be his friend.  Larry is no ordinary ghoul, though.  He creates a picture book about himself with some ghastly but impressive artwork that would be right at home in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.  Larry also has the ability to publish his story in the form of an eBook and have it appear on Oliver’s tablet.  This is a particularly clever tactic, as we all know how irresistible scrolling through a story can be.

The hook in Come Play is that when someone finishes Larry’s story, he’s allowed to cross over into our world and take a friend back to his world.  By observing Oliver through electronic devices, Larry comes to the conclusion that Oliver is someone like himself, lonely because he has no friends.  Larry would be correct there, because Oliver definitely has no friends at school.  His classmates give him the stink eye during class and trick him into going to a nearby field, where they tease him and throw his tablet away.  Oliver’s dad Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) finds a replacement tablet in the lost and found box at his job as a parking attendant and gives it to Oliver as a replacement.  Unfortunately, this gives Larry another avenue to lure Oliver into his clutches, and Larry promptly uploads his eBook onto Oliver’s new tablet.

Oliver may be autistic, but he’s not stupid.  After a few pages, he is scared out of his wits and stops reading Larry’s story.  He hides his tablet under the stairs and refuses to answer Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), his mom, as to where it went.  Unfortunately, Sarah heeds the advice of Oliver’s speech therapist and invites some of his classmates over.  Naturally, it’s the ones who teased Oliver at school.  Byron (a great name for a villain), finds Oliver’s tablet and begins reading Larry’s story to spite Oliver.  It’s not long before Larry makes an appearance, creeping and creaking around Oliver’s house in the dark.  Larry protects Oliver by pinning Byron to the wall with the dining room table.  Sara rushes in to find the kids screaming, and Oliver’s sleepover is quickly over.

At this point, Come Play is following the standard horror movie playlist.  A young protagonist is tormented by a demon/ghoul/ghost that finds a way into our world via some sort of household object (ex: mirror, television, video tape, etc.)  Based on how similar horror movies play out, by the conclusion of the story all of Oliver’s friends and family will be dead and Oliver will be dragged off to Larry’s world.  But Come Play, thankfully, has a different story to tell.

After the sleepover that nightmares are made of, Sarah takes Oliver to see Byron.  Byron hasn’t been able to eat or sleep since his Tet-a-tet with Larry.  Oliver apologizes to Byron, and Byron tells his mom that Oliver didn’t hurt him.   The next day at school, Byron asks why Oliver said he didn’t want Byron as his friend anymore.  It turns out that Oliver had punched Byron in the face sometime before, and Sarah had lied to Byron’s mom, saying that Oliver didn’t want to play with Byron anymore.  Now, we can debate whether mom’s ever actually lie on their children’s behalf, but in this story, Sarah’s white lie is what creates the animus between Byron and Oliver.  Oliver was OK with being punched in the face after all, which shows a very mature understanding on his part of Oliver’s autistic behavior.  The level of compassion displayed by Byron is a bit of a stretch for a twelve year-old, but the fact that Come Play took this route was refreshing.  Movies too often take the easy route of demonizing people with disabilities, so I liked that Byron was angry at Oliver because they no longer were friends, not because he had any problems with Oliver’s behavior (or mean right hook).

Another welcome twist is how Oliver’s parents quickly realize that Larry is real and is after their son.  Sure, they initially don’t believe what Byron tells them.  But once Larry pays them a visit at night, they change their tune immediately.  I really hate how some horror movies include characters that witness Satan himself in the flesh, and they somehow convince themselves that they were seeing things, or imagining things, or that it was a dream or whatever.

Unfortunately, one night on the job, Marty swipes through to the end of Larry’s story on his phone.  Wherever Larry goes, lights go out.  His ability to control electronic devices from his world evidently causes havoc with lightning of all kinds in our world.  As Larry gets closer to Marty’s shack, the darkness gets closer and closer.  Soon, the entire parking lot is enveloped in darkness.  I know what you’re thinking: turning out the lights is that scary?  True, things suddenly going dark is the oldest horror movie trick in the book, but when done right it is a very cheap (and I would say effective) way to generate scares.  Just like in the first Insidious movie, Come Play effectively uses light bulbs shorting out and exploding to signify something bad is lurking around.  All of the CGI monster thrashing and gnashing is never as scary as when a movie lets your imagination run wild when you can’t see what terrible thing is RIGHT THERE in the dark.

Come Play also avoids the whole “the monster/killer/ghoul is dead–until he isn’t” plot point that drives so many horror movies.  (In screenplay parlance this is the false dawn/real dawn plot device.)  Everyone alive at the end, for the most part.  I was shocked that Sarah took Larry’s hand to save her son, and that Larry didn’t back out of the arrangement.  While I wasn’t surprised when Marty reappeared at the end, fully recovered from his run in with Larry, I was surprised that he left his slacker lifestyle behind and turned into a responsible father.  I was shocked that Sarah was able to have a relationship with Oliver from the other dimension where she now resides.  Instead of her coming back and for Oliver and taking him against his will to wherever (or whatever) Larry calls home, she’s able to play with Oliver.  Come Play is a rare thing indeed, a horror movie ending on a positive, if not happy, note. 

Horror movies in general rely heavily on the suspension of disbelief.  Come Play definitely requires you to suspend a lot of plot points that don’t hold up to scrutiny afterwards.  Case in point: Larry being a ghoul who is also an electronic publishing wizard.  We never see Larry’s world, so maybe it is more technologically advanced than ours.  I know I’ve made the premise of  Come Play sound ridiculous, and it is, but the movie worked for me.  How, exactly?

Credit must go to director and co-writer Jacob Chase.  The movie is expertly paced, spending just enough time on the family side of the story so that when Larry appears (and reappears), we care about the outcome of those encounters.  I wasn’t quite clear on why Marty leaves home, but that was a minor issue for me.  The acting is solid if not spectacular, with all of the characters coming off as actual people.  Nobody does anything intentional to put themselves or others into danger, and the events of the plot feel natural and unforced.

No horror movie would work without effective cinematography, and Come Play makes ample use of light and shadow to amplify what is being shown (and not shown) on screen.  My other quibble is that Larry wasn’t a very effective CGI creation.  CGI is expensive, and when your movie has a small budget, mediocre CGI is impossible to hide.  Too bad the producers couldn’t have gone for a traditional physical representation of the monster, like they did in the Eighties and Nineties.  As it stands, Larry reminded me of Gollum, or a mugwump.  I suspect the filmmakers had Larry shriek whenever his face was shown, to cover up for their CGI limitations.  As a monster, Larry is scarier the less we see of him.  Maybe the filmmakers will have more money to spend to make a more convincing Larry in a sequel, and hopefully explain where Larry comes from. (The movie cribs a bit from Stranger Things, in that Larry seems to come from another dimension.)
With his shaggy hair and big eyes, actor Azhy Robertson reminded me of Danny Lloyd in The Shining.  He played the son in Marriage Story, and he definitely grew in the year or so from when that movie came out.  Based on my personal experiences, I thought he gave a realistic portrayal of a child with autism.  I realize there is a lot of controversy these days, with movies and/or actors being accused of ableism.  Certainly the part of Oliver could have been played by a child actor that actually is autistic.  I have a son who’s disabled, and I sympathize with those who feel they are losing out on acting roles to able-bodied actors who want to pretend to be disabled or whatever.  While I am recommending this movie, I would understand some people may choose not to see it for that specific issue.  Come Play is an entertaining horror movie that places an autistic person at its center, and portrays that person’s behavior with sympathy and sensitivity.  I feel it’s a step in the right direction, hopefully just the first of many more steps to be made in the area of representation in the movies.

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