Young protagonists in horror films; a quick checklist:
Shy: Alienated from peer group in significant way
Examples: Danny ("The Shining"); Carrie ("Carrie")
Family Trouble: Parents either widowed, single, separated, or suffering tension
Examples: Samuel ("The Babadook"); Chris ("The Hole in the Ground")
Expressive Eyes: Better to record the terror they're experiencing/inflicting
Examples: Toshio ("Ju-On"); Richie ("It")
Crayon Artists: Preoccupied with drawing terrifying things
Examples: Dalton ("Insidious"); Esther ("Orphan")
Evil Desirability: Demonic/Ghostly force hellbent on snatching them
Examples: Regan ("The Exorcist"); Carol Anne ("Poltergeist")
Bearing this handy cheat sheet in hand, let's see how poor Oliver (Azhy Robertson) fares in Jacob Chase's impressively built horror flick "Come Play," which you can think of as a kind of "Babadook" for the digital age.
Oliver, a shy, autistic child who doesn't speak except for pressing the vocal buttons on his special iPhone app, struggles to avoid undue attention at school (No. 1). Living at home with his estranged parents, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and soon-to-be-moving-out Marty (No. 2), he spends his free time enjoying episodes of "Sponge Bob" on his phone. One late evening, however, his phone contacts him from his bedside table, presenting him with a spooky storybook ("Misunderstood Monsters"), which tells the story of "Larry," a monster with elongated, stick-like arms and legs extending from a hunch-backed slug's body.
When Oliver begins to read further in the book, swiping through the pages, all the lights in the hallway and his room suddenly flicker and pop, and he hears clomping footsteps coming toward him, leaving him visibly terrified (No. 3).
It seems "Larry" comes from another dimension, and, like Oliver, is terribly lonely. What he wants, we come to eventually find out from the rhyming book -- perhaps a bit too explicitly stated -- is to take young Oliver home with him (No. 4), so they can play together forever (whatever that actually means remains anyone's guess -- but given Larry's penchant for a) violence, and, b) scaring the hell out of everyone, it doesn't sound pleasant).
Simple enough premise, so far, and one well-covered by previous sorts of films, but Chase (who directed the short film this feature is based upon) has some verifiable skill in pacing his scary set-tos -- a scene where Oliver spins around his bedroom in goofy joy with his iPad, using a filters app to change his appearance, sets up the obvious sudden materialization of Larry in the background as he spins, but Chase cannily switches from an Oliver POV shot, to a shot of Oliver's face, for three full revolutions before giving us the creepiness we know is still coming. In this way, the director's calibrated patience pays off time and again, giving his scenes additional shocking oomph. For all its familiarity, it's a well-crafted affair, which rewards its otherwise more mundane scares with real anxiety. Just because we know it's coming doesn't mean we can't be affected.
There are also good details peppered throughout that add a bit of depth, including Oliver's autism (his "stimming" with his fingers as he knots them together), and his parents' stressors (they both secretly wish he were "normal," despite themselves); even concerning another young boy, Byron (Winslow Fegley), once a friend of Oliver's, whose cruel turns toward him are reversed after his own run-in with Larry during an ill-advised sleepover set up by the fretting Sarah.
Perhaps, best of all, Oliver isn't portrayed as some kind of precious dream child: As good-natured as he seems to be, his autistic behavior (Sarah complains sadly that he will never look her in the eye) can make him difficult to relate to, with his parents and his peer group (who give him a mean-spirited name because of his incoherent speech). He's sympathetic, of course, because he has done absolutely nothing to deserve any of what befalls him -- Larry appears on his iPhone screen, absolutely unbidden (a moment that involves the first use of a favorite technique of the director, putting us in the monster's POV from behind the screen, staring out at his young prey through the translucent buttons and breathing raspily) -- and handles it as well as anyone could have. The misery of being unable to communicate your terror also factors into Oliver's increasing desperation.
Metaphorically, Chase's making the ubiquitous, distractingly flashing screens of the Zoomer generation the source of inter-dimensional "evil," successfully satirizes the zombifying effect of the devices on the minds of our children, without spilling over into stridency (one might say the same thing for long-suffering parents and "Sponge Bob," but it turns out the cartoon has a calming effect on Oliver, and the show's bouncy theme song plays a role in the film's climax).
Chase has also taken the time to scout his locations: The parking lot where Marty works the evening shift as a booth attendant is dark, vast, and uncomfortably deserted, like a particularly gloomy Edward Hopper painting, with rows of streetlights extending out into the distance; and the field by Oliver's school that becomes the locale of the final showdown with Larry is all weeds, berms and molehills, a lone power stanchion set off in the distance. The effect adds a certain element of Oliver's emotional point of view, alone and often forsaken -- even, at times, by his own parents -- as it creates subliminal anxiousness within the viewer.
In this way, even though Oliver trips every item on our cheatsheet -- I should quickly mention he also likes to draw crayon visions of Larry at school (No. 5!) instead of paying attention in class -- he still has enough of a singular identity to keep the film from falling into the lazy trappings that so often befall Halloween-release-date horror flicks. It hardly breaks new ground, but the film successfully moves in its own rhythms.
87 Cast: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright
Director: Jacob Chase
Rating: PG-13, for terror, frightening images and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes