As if parents don’t have enough to worry about these days, now there’s a lonely demon named Larry hiding in your kid’s iPad and trying to lure them into some kind of hell dimension. So goes the rusty hook of Jacob Chase’s “Come Play,” an uninspired jolt machine of a horror movie that’s being dumped into theaters on Halloween weekend, where its tepid scares will be forced to compete against the abject terror of breathing the same air as a few reckless strangers.
But the problem here isn’t necessarily with Chase’s premise, which the writer-director first explored in the 2017 short “Larry.” For one thing, the poor guy had no way of knowing that — by the time his feature was finished — the prospect of “surrendering your child to some kind of hell dimension” would seem like a tempting alternative to public school. For another, the idea behind “Come Play” isn’t quite as silly as it sounds (even if Larry is introduced with a POV shot from inside a little boy’s iPhone, the slender CGI sludge ghoul wheezing from within the device in a way that makes you think this movie is going to end up at the Genius Bar).
Chase’s monster isn’t a simple metaphor for our addiction to technology, but rather an expression of social isolation; Larry preys on friendless children — offering them mutual companionship at a steep price — and the film begins with him finding a perfect target in a non-verbal autistic child named Oliver (the expressive Azhy Robertson, who you might recognize from his performance as the stakes of “Marriage Story”). Not only has Oliver been picked on by a troika of school bullies since he punched one of them in the face a few months back, but he’s also growing distant from his frustrated young mother (an uncharacteristically flat Gillian Jacobs), who in turn is starting to resent her more easygoing husband for the natural rapport he still has with their son (dad is played by John Gallagher Jr, a horror fiend who delights in the genre’s tropes and gifts this movie with an unearned emotional charge on his way out).
For Oliver, the iPad that contains his picture-to-speech app isn’t a toy so much as his best hope for having a meaningful relationship with the outside world; alas, that’s yet another thing he shares in common with Larry, who shows up in the form of a digital storybook called “Misunderstood Monsters” that forces its way onto Oliver’s device like that unsolicited U2 album and starts to terrorize everyone in a series of generically dull ways (like that unsolicited U2 album). Scarier than the many predictable “boo!” moments are the frequent suggestions that Oliver might be tempted to give Larry what he wants. “Your. Parents. Want. You. To. Be. Normal.,” the staccato monster says through the iPad during the film’s strongest scene. “I. Just. Want. To. Be. Your. Friend.” It could be an offer the kid can’t refuse.
But “Come Play” doesn’t make a concerted effort to do anything of note with its wannabe Babadook leverage; Chase doesn’t leverage ol’ Larry into a worthwhile hook for his story so much as he uses the guy as an excuse not to tell one. Most of the movie is spent on overfamiliar ominousness that does little to advance the plot, which is all the more frustrating because Chase has clearly assembled the ingredients for a richer horror experience than the cheap gruel he ends up serving here. This version of his film is enamored by its monster at the expense of everyone around him, as “Come Play” whiffs on exploring the fraught dynamic between Oliver and his parents, or the difficulties and rewards of raising a neurodivergent child; in sharp contrast to something like “The Babadook,” it fails to mine any meaningful scares from the two-way door of digital technology (though Chase has some fun with the face-recognition software in the Photobooth app), or deepen its jolts by couching them in its characters.
In this case, that ends up denying those jolts the basic integrity they need to be suspenseful, because if Larry isn’t actively trying to exploit Oliver’s loneliness and further isolate him from his family, then the monster is really just more of a nuisance than anything else. His illogical existence invites all sorts of questions that Chase’s short wasn’t pressured to answer. Questions like: “If Larry’s shtick is befriending young children, why does his strategy only consist of scaring the shit out of them?” And, “Who named him Larry?” And, “Why isn’t the movie just called ‘Larry?’” There’s enough potential here for something great. As it stands, “Come Play” is merely serviceable, and leaves you with the feeling that a much better game was lost in the shuffle.
Focus Features will open “Come Play” in theaters on Friday, October 30.
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