One of the few horror efforts from 2020 that dared an American theatrical release last year – only one minor delay period and no being sold to a streaming service – Come Play, though perhaps stuck with the stigma of being a “direct to digital release” here in Australia, is a worthy scarer that utilises a simple premise and mostly delivers accordingly.
Given how reliant we are on our phones, it’s a surprise that more films haven’t been released about sinister apps, but writer/director Jacob Chase (working off his own short feature Larry) taps into both the dependency and the storytelling nature of a harmless download here, laying focus on young Oliver (Azhy Robertson), a non-verbal autistic boy whose only form of communication is through a vocal app on his smartphone. Already struggling socially at school – and the broken relationship between his parents (Gillian Jacobs‘ Sarah and John Gallagher Jr.‘s Marty) isn’t helping his temperament either – Oliver downloads a story-time app titled “Misunderstood Monsters”, finding himself initially drawn to the friendless desperation of the story’s central monster, Larry.
Sensing Oliver’s isolation, the app-enclosed Larry tries to persuade the young tyke to finish the story and release him into the real world, which, naturally, allows Chase to indulge in the superficial ingredients of the horror genre by creating familiar, but no-less effective sequences of jump scares and night bumps that can’t be explained. Whilst Come Play is an overall lighter horror film in terms of its violent content, the film’s volatile nature is quite unnerving when you realise that this monster’s use of preying on young Oliver is through the only device he needs to have in order to communicate and, essentially, survive. Sure, kids today act as if they need their electronics, but for Oliver it’s the literal truth, so Chase’s commentary on technology and the evil it represents doesn’t go unnoticed.
Opting for atmospheric scares over imagery, Chase employs quite simple techniques to maintain a more unsettling ambience, with the simplest flickering of lights and the wise decision to keep the creature effect of Larry as hidden as possible. The suggestion is stronger than the reality, but it’s when Larry starts to become more prominent and he acts as an adversary to the likes of Sarah and Marty that Come Play loses its effect; Jacobs and Gallagher Jr. never quite feel as natural in their reactions to Larry than the young Robertson does, with the actor truly delivering and keeping the film afloat on his shoulders.
Light on the terror overall, but no less effective for those seeking easy thrills, Come Play breezes by with a crisp 96 minute running time and the right frame of mind to exorcise exposition. For a film aimed at a tween-aged audience, it treats its viewers with surprising intellect, resulting in a simple, yet creepy bedtime story that might have you thinking twice about your relationship with technology.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Come Play will be available on digital platforms in Australia on August 18th, 2021.