Come Play, written and directed by Jacob Chase, tells the story of Oliver (Azhy Robertson) who is an autistic kid going through a tough time since his parents are splitting up and he isn’t making any friends at school. Out of the blue, he’s contacted through his mobile device by a creature called Larry that wants to be his friend. But it obviously has sinister plans in its mind. Chase tactfully blends a message about over-dependence on technology with the scares that are synonymous with creature features. And with some great performances, primarily from Robertson, neat editing, and impactful sound design, it manages to be more than your run-of-the-mill horror movie.
A few days ago, I saw a video on Kanye West by a YouTuber. I haven’t completed it yet because it is around 90 minutes. But he made an interesting point in the 40 minutes that I watched and that is there’s nothing new and original and anymore. Although he was talking about beats and rhythm and temp music, because he was unpacking Kanye, it got me thinking that the same can be said about movies and the themes, plots, characters, etc. that are used in them. Everything is advertently or inadvertently influenced by something that has come before. Even the ideas someone thinks is original is a remix up of things they’ve grown up watching. However, the factor that differentiates a good product from a bad one is if the creator can put their individuality into it. And after thinking about Come Play for a long time, I think that it’s an example of a good remix.
Come Play is written and directed by Jacob Chase. It’s produced by Alan C. Blomquist, Alex Heineman, and Andrew Rona. The music is by Roque Baños, cinematography by Maxime Alexandre, editing by Gregory Plotkin, production design by David J. Bomba, set design by Kari Measham and Sash Kosvic, costume design by Marcia Scott, hair and make-up by Stefanie Coulie and Samantha Terry, and sound design by Eliot Connors and Joe Dzuban. The creature design is by Ehsan Bigloo, creature effects by Emily Fiora Parks, creature paint design by Russell Lukich, and a majority of the visual effects is by Mr. X Inc. It features Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, and more. The plot is centered around Oliver (Robertson), who’s an autistic kid trying to deal with his parents’ troubled relationship and his “friends” at school. And the growing tension his ramped up by the arrival of a ghoulish entity called Larry.
Jacob Chase mixes a bunch of familiar horror IPs into a digestible story that comments on technology, loneliness, parenting, and more.
I am pretty sure that you have seen Stranger Things, one of the iterations of Stephen King’s IT, The Babadook, Black Mirror, and A Quiet Place. What’s the really obvious throughline between all of them except Black Mirror? Kids and parenting. Now, after doing a cursory research of Chase’s interviews, I learned that he hasn’t specifically cited these properties as inspirations. The only movie that he has cited is Frankenstein and I agree with it for the most part because Larry does initially evoke a sense of sympathy because of its sad origins and how it just wants a friend. But I think that intentionally or unintentionally, in his attempt to tell Oliver’s story as a sad kid who is struggling with his own fears which is being aggravated by his parents, who are fighting fears of their own, and his dependence on technology, Chase has boiled those movies and shows down into a story that functions without seeming too derivative or cliched.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am saying all this in a positive way. I am saying that Come Play is a rare example where, despite its similarities to popular films and series, it is great. But the main question is why? Why does it work although it harks back to the use of electricity in Stranger Things, fear being food for the monster in IT, loneliness and bad parenting manifesting the Babadook, and technology being the door to something dark like Black Mirror? Well, because Chase stays true to his central characters and intertwines his message with their motivations. Sometimes writers do it the other way round and that’s when everything falls with a thud. But not here. Every piece of dialogue, every scene, every twist, every revelation, takes the story forward. There’s little-to-no-exposition. What you see is what you get and it’s enough to piece together what’s happening. So naturally, all your focus is on Oliver, Sarah, and Marty, who BTW generate enough empathy to make you want them to overcome their predicaments.
Jacob Chase sets out with a message and delivers it in a rather efficient way with some nifty use of visual and practical effects.
I cannot laud Chase’s decision to throw out all the ambiguity about whether Larry is a figment of Oliver’s imagination or not pretty early on in the movie enough. Because then the fear becomes real instead of just happening in our protagonist’s mind (Which is not a bad thing when done well. I am just saying that it would’ve worn down Come Play a lot). Now, I want to reiterate that I am not claiming that Stranger Things, IT, Black Mirror, The Babadook, or A Quiet Place, were used as direct references. But I think that visually they were kind of repurposed to fit the movie’s intimate story. For example, in order to establish its commentary on our overdependence on technology, instead of just showing telephonic devices in every frame, the set designer and production designer filled them with electrical and electronic equipments as well, which was further accentuated by the cinematographer. That magnified the impact of the flickering announcing Larry’s arrival and served as a searing reminder of our departure from our organic roots.
The movie is decently paced. It does drag in a few places. But overall it’s really good. If you’re not thinking too much about it, then you won’t even notice about how smoothly it flows. And, in my opinion, Chase and his team doesn’t really give you time to think about everything as they constantly bend reality to amplify the fear, which is something that I feel is really necessary in a horror movie. Jump-scares have become cliched and I am not going to lie, Chase does use a lot of them in the first 20-minutes. However, then he throws that away and opts for uncut moments of straight-up terror. He makes sure that you notice how unrealistic yet practical the scenes are to confuse you and let that fear grow inside you so that the concluding message seems necessary and not hamfisted. Without spoiling anything, the floating pieces of paper shaping Larry while Marty is fixing a light to show that divide between organic material and technology and something similar happening during the light-bulb scene with Sarah are mind-blowing.
Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, and John Gallagher Jr. sell the scares effectively.
This is a grey area for me because I don’t have a lot of understanding about autism to say if Robertson’s portrayal of Oliver is accurate or not. I have seen it go horribly wrong in the Shane Black directed The Predator. What I can say though that I was able to empathise with Oliver and his inability to voice his opinions since he’s unable to process everything that’s happening around him in real time through Robertson’s performance. Oliver has the pressure of not being able to fit in with his school, he doesn’t fully understand why his parents are splitting up, and on top of that there’s bloody Larry coming for his soul. And he has to depict all these layers without any dialogue. Without any dialogue! If I was Robertson I would’ve shit my pants but he slays it (I have never used that word to explain someone’s acting skills but here we are). I am also going to say that he’s the best actor in Come Play and it’s a film that has Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.
Talking about Jacobs and Gallagher Jr., they’re brilliant. In my opinion, out of the two, Jacobs has to do most of the heavy-lifting, just like her character. There’s an innate sense of sadness to her demeanour because Sarah continously feels guilty for not bringing up her son properly and for thinking that she’s not doing enough for him. And I cannot even explain how subtly she shows the pain that Sarah feels because Oliver can’t look her in the eyes. It’s overwhelming. The isolation and the desperation really reflects in her facial expressions and is amplified by the hair and make-up team, making here a mixture of Essie Davis from The Babadook and Winona Ryder from Stranger Things. Gallagher Jr. doesn’t get to quite peak because it’s cut short by the narrative. But within that run-time he ticks every checkbox of the absent father that Marty is, all the while reacting to Larry like a grown man would. It’s relatable is what I mean to say. The rest of the supporting cast is great with Winslow as Byron standing out of the rest.
I am a horror fan and I have watched a bunch of horror movies and shows in the past few months. So, I am a bit too familiar with the tropes and tricks of the genre and that’s why a lot of the scares or chills might’ve missed me. And yet here I am saying that Come Play is scary. But if you’re not very familiar with the genre and you are just starting to watch horror movies, it’s going to be terrifying. You might even have nightmares and a few sleepless nights. I am not saying that to discourage you. I am saying that to encourage because in addition to its thrills and chills, it’s relevant and educational. Just like the characters in the movie, we’re straying away from things that make us human and adapting things that are veiled in agreement forms and confidentiality contracts and whatnot. Yet we are trusting them more than the people around us. What’s that going to lead to? Maybe not a soul and light-eating monster like Larry, sure. Maybe it’ll be something worse. Maybe it’ll the bottomless, all-consuming pit called loneliness that Larry embodies. How’s that for a slice of not-so-fried gold? Sorry, I couldn’t help myself from making an Edgar Wright movie reference because Come Play makes one as well. Stop judging me, watch the movie safely, and reclaim your humanity.
SEE ALSO: Andhaghaaram Review – A Seamless Mixture Of Indian Lore And The Age-old Vengeful Spirit Trope
Cover artwork by Dhaval Punatar