'Come Play': Film Review

Jasper Savage / Amblin Partners / Focus Features

Gillian Jacobs and Azhy Robertson in 'Come Play'

Taut, effective techno terror.

The solitude of a nonverbal boy makes him prey to a companion-seeking creature hatched from inside his smartphone in Jacob Chase's expansion of his short horror film, 'Larry.'

There's a fertile history of technology as a conduit for evil in horror, notably in films like Poltergeist and The Ring. Those predecessors are among the more obvious influences of writer-director Jacob Chase's gripping family-in-peril chiller, Come Play, expanded with great assurance in both craft and storytelling from his imaginative 5-minute short, Larry. The idea of a children's picture book as a demonic incubator recalls The Babadook; both the creature design and the strategic use of a motion detector summon the Alien franchise; and even the shark-tooth trim on the young protagonist's hoodie seems a playful nod to Jaws, while his mop-top is pure Danny Torrance in The Shining.

Much like J.J. Abrams in Super 8, Chase shows nimble command of specific genre references without falling into a derivative trap. The Focus Features Halloween release doesn't exactly break new ground but it does put an intriguing spin on familiar elements by giving the techno presence a semblance of sentient conscience driven by loneliness. Peeking from behind the screen of a smartphone, tablet or other digital device, it identifies a suitable human target with whom to connect and give it three-dimensional life. Until that process is complete, it can only be seen by the naked eye via the device.

The short film (worth a watch on YouTube) revolves around a night-shift parking-yard attendant who unleashes a monster by flipping through the pages of a creepy story on a tablet from the Lost & Found box, complete with H.R. Giger-esque illustrations. The feature shifts its focus to the same character's troubled young son, ramping up the vulnerability and folding in the anxieties of the boy's frazzled mother.

When one of his elementary school classmates petulantly asks why Oliver (Azhy Robertson) gets to use his smartphone in class, another kid explains with blunt impatience, "He's autistic, dude." Oliver uses a dialogue app to communicate but is otherwise nonverbal.

He's able to show affection with his father Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), but Oliver has minimal rapport with his mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs), refusing even to look her in the eye. The boy's parents are in the process of separating; Sarah resents her husband for breezing in with presents and hugs while she does the heavy lifting of speech-therapy classes and coaxing Oliver through his daily routine.

Much of that consists of muffling his isolation in SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, until his smartphone randomly coughs up a children's story called Misunderstood Monsters, about a lonely creature named Larry. Even from his first cursory scan of the story's illustrated pages, where Oliver learns that "Larry just wants a friend," the boy becomes aware of a presence in the shadows. Both on the screen and in his bedroom. Marty dismisses Oliver's terror as a nightmare, but Sarah seems convinced it's based in real fear.

Chase and DP Maxime Alexandre (who shot Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor) are smart to stick by the principle that less is more with movie monsters, keeping our glimpses of Larry brief and partially obscured until well into the film to boost the tension. It helps also that, like The Babadook, the 10-foot-tall monster relies predominantly on practical effects with discreet CG enhancement. Four puppeteers are credited with operating Larry, which was designed and fabricated by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

In an excellent child performance that's very much the heart of the film, Robertson (seen recently in Marriage Story and The Plot Against America) makes an enthralling central figure, a boy entirely alone in his thoughts. Oliver's physical defenselessness is countered by the slightest suggestion that his innately secretive side makes him more receptive to sinister influences. Just the fact that he lacks the words to express what he's experiencing significantly ups the stakes. When he's bullied at school by three brats who toss away his smartphone in a field, he's robbed even of those minimal means of communication until Marty brings home a cracked tablet from the parking attendant booth where he works nights.

There are aspects of techno horror like One Missed Call in the transference of evil from one device to another. But Larry also jumps via simple electricity in his initial incarnations, bouncing from lamp to lamp while blowing out bulbs in the family's home, or popping streetlights in the parking yard. As it was in the short film, that latter setting is highly atmospheric, a dark urban landscape where menace lurks like an optical illusion in the shadows, with every blink shifting closer to the isolated attendant's booth. The disquieting effect recalls some of the exterior scenes in the superb low-budget discovery The Vast of Night.

Chase dials up the fear factor first by placing Oliver in a sleepover with the same boys who bullied him and then putting all four of them at risk when Larry comes out to play. The most antagonistic of the kids, Byron (Winslow Fegley), gets scared out of his wits, which creates a further obstacle in Sarah's efforts to help her son socialize. But the boys' history is more complicated than it seems, raising issues that shed light on Oliver's distance from his mother.

It elevates the film considerably having two first-rate actors like Jacobs and Gallagher in the parental roles. Their contrasting manner in handling the challenges of a child on the autism spectrum adds real emotional texture to the domestic scenes, but the marital friction is understated, remaining in the background.

Jacobs' Sarah made me think of Toni Collette's character in The Sixth Sense, a mother whose love is never in doubt but whose nerves are pretty much shredded. It seems so rare in American movies that ordinary mothers are allowed to be anything but perfect vessels of selfless devotion.

When Marty is sidelined by an injury and Sarah is left alone to protect Oliver as all-out mayhem unfolds and the lumbering presence invades their house, the strained bond between them must go through rapid changes in a situation of extreme duress. The primal nature of that connection gives the movie a powerful center, with an outcome both tragic and poignant that takes another deft tonal swerve by touching on the role of technology as the repository of memories.

The director doesn't rely on cheap jump scares or trick editing. Instead, he builds and sustains suspense throughout the well-paced thriller with controlled camera movement, malevolent lighting, unsettling music and jagged, staticky sound. Come Play works by establishing the refuge of technology for a friendless child and then flipping the scenario to explore what happens when the technology demands something in return.

Production companies: The Picture Company, Amblin Partners
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver Wright, Dalmar Abuzeid, Eboni Booth, Rachel Wilson
Director-screenwriter: Jacob Chase, based on his short film, Larry
Producers: Alex Heineman, Andrew Rona
Executive producer: Alan Blomquist
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre

Production designer: David Bomba
Costume designer: Marcia Scott
Roque Baños
Editor: Gregory Plotkin
Casting: Rori Bergman
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes