“Cellphone horror” updates itself as technology improves and its place in culture changes. In 2019, “Countdown” warned of the perils of downloading every newfangled popular app for funsies, especially apps that kill. This year, Jacob Chase’s “Come Play,” adapted from his 2018 short “Larry,” moves from phones to smart devices and cries “stranger danger,” reminding audiences that none of us know who’s watching us through our screens, or what; a pervert named Larry, perhaps, or an extra-dimensional child-snatching monster? Either way, it’s up to parents to keep their kids safe from skeezy weirdos and creepypasta bugbears on the Internet by limiting tablet time.
What Chase’s film argues, however, is that smart devices are no longer hip luxury items and class signifiers; in 2020, they’re necessities for functioning in contemporary society, as well as tools for surmounting disability, like, for instance, non-verbal autism. Oliver (Azhy Robertson), “Come Play’s” young hero, uses a high-tech AAC device to communicate through touch screen icons, and it’s through this device that he meets said extra-dimensional child-snatching monster, who actually does go by “Larry.” Larry wriggles his way into Oliver’s life and home through a storybook app, “Misunderstood Monsters,” a digitized take on the simple pop-up book in Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook.” In fact right down to a clearly borrowed shot, “Come Play” reads as a cousin to that Australian masterpiece, but married with the aesthetics of the “Conjuring” films: Pans and dead space are central to Chase’s arsenal as Larry schemes to lure Oliver away to the nether realm in which he dwells.
Robertson’s efforts at performing nonverbal ASD flip between honest and inauthentic, but Chase at least grasps the details, the way that a nonverbal ASD child might enjoy spinning in circles for lengths of time that would make other kids barf. It’s the details that draw the film away from self-parody. Robertson has by far the greater task to accomplish, and frankly does his best work in moments where Oliver is either treated as the sum of his deficits or as lonely as a robin in the rain. When reduced to quirks and tics, Oliver retreats into himself—it’s there in Robertson’s eyes. When left alone without a friend in the world, Robertson conveys adolescent desolation through downcast expression. Having only your parents, played by Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr., for companionship is a rough deal.
Inevitably, the culture will hold discussions over casting and whether the film should’ve hired an ASD actor over Robertson, and these discussions will have merit. But both Chase and Robertson do well enough with what they have. “Come Play,” after all, is structured as a spook-a-blast flick more so than a character study, delivering on scare after scare in well-designed plotting patterns. Having read the first few stanzas of the child’s poem in “Misunderstood Monsters,” Oliver unwittingly calls Larry into his world, and Larry goes about carrying out the duties of monsterhood: Lurking in shadows, stomping unseen through hallways, putting in appearances in face filter apps from the pitch black of Oliver’s closet, and eventually saying “hi” to Oliver’s mom, Sarah (Jacobs), and dad, Marty (Gallagher Jr.), in ways both innocuous and sobering.
For his first impression with Sarah, Larry changes all the broken lightbulbs in the living room, a helpful but totally unwelcome gesture from an equally unwanted houseguest. For Marty, the introduction takes place outside the parking lot ticket booth where he works, as newspapers tossed around by a stiff breeze make contact with Larry’s tall, invisible form and slowly give away his shape out of the corner of Marty’s eye. There’s a sense of invention to “Come Play”s horror beats, playfulness on Chase’s part as he looks for opportunities to turn darkness into a menace and technology against the wielder. It’s fitting that Larry is only discernible through the lens of the very devices he haunts; like bullies, abusers, and standard-issue reprobates online, he only exists in Oliver’s life as long as he’s given the attention he craves, whether by Oliver or Sarah or his frenemy, Byron (Winslow Fegley), playing the part of the nonbeliever proven wrong in the most explicit manner possible.
“Come Play” and films like it face the same pitfall of preachiness. There’s a line that, when crossed, turn these movies into pearl-clutching Luddite screeds about the threat technology poses for users and the problems of technological overreliance. But “Come Play,” rather than tut-tut and finger wag at the Internet for exposing children to actual monsters, demonstrates an understanding of why kids are tempted by online promises in the first place. Where kids who don’t live with or appreciate autistic experiences would maybe resist Larry’s offer of friendship, Oliver balks. Such is the weight of his loneliness. Chase doesn’t judge him or hold it against him. Instead, he chooses to humanize Oliver every step of the way and clarify that, yes, Larry is a ten-foot gangly aberration from the void, but Larry also appears to “get” Oliver in ways the people who’re supposed to care about him don’t. What “Come Play” lacks in authority it makes up for with insight.
And of course, it helps that the film is scary, too, loaded with building dread and an array of jump beats to keep viewers on the alert. Up until Chase’s script starts stumbling over clunky exposition literalizing Larry’s origins, he maintains a constant stream of frights handsomely captured by the lens of Maxime Alexandre, the DP on nearly every Alexandre Aja movie right up to last year’s phenomenal nature horror picture “Crawl.” Incidentally, he shot “Countdown,” too, and “The Nun,” and “Annabelle: Creation,” and as Alexandre’s credentials add up, the confluence of style and theme in “Come Play” make perfect sense. He’s just the right guy to photograph Chase’s film, a craftsman versed in Internet horror. Their partnership bears welcome fruit, a derivation of past greats, a successful transition from short to feature, and a good reason to look up from our screens from time to time. [B]