It’s odd how, on paper, so many horror films don’t sound nearly as promising as they should. The Ring might be a contemporary horror classic for good reason, yet the idea of a VHS tape that summons a dead girl out of your TV to kill you seven days after you watch it just sounds ridiculous. The Fly is a body horror masterpiece, but at first blush, there’s objectively little reason why a studio exec would want to greenlight a movie where the plot is, basically, a man turning into a giant fly over 90 minutes. Come Play follows in similar footsteps to those titles in that it seeks out a novel approach to situating longstanding horror tropes within the trappings of modern technology. On paper, an invisible monster that lives within our electronic devices and uses electricity to travel through our world is, frankly, daft, yet there’s no reason it couldn’t be manipulated by a smart filmmaker into a film rivaling The Ring, The Fly, Poltergeist, Pulse or any number of other great horror films along similar lines.

Alas, Jacob Chase’s effort, an expansion of his 2017 short “Larry,” doesn’t quite cut it. There’s abundant potential here — in the concept, its elaboration, Chase’s directing — and this ought to have been the opportunity to realize that potential from the short film. Come Play revolves around Oliver (Azhy Robertson), a young boy with nonverbal autism whose only friends are the electronic devices he uses to escape a challenging external world. Yet lurking within these machines is Larry, a supernatural entity who’s just as lonely as Oliver but much more malignant. Larry’s seeking a friend, someone he can capture and take with him into his world in perpetuity. Oliver, at odds with his feuding parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) and bullied by his schoolfriends, is his target.

For all that Come Play feels and works like an average contemporary horror film, it’s actually much more complex and inquisitive than its outward appearance might suggest. Chase has a solid grasp on Oliver’s condition, understanding both the nuances of the difficulties he faces and the effects it has on those around him. Indeed, his parents, Sarah and Marty, are developed with similar attention to detail, fleshed out with character intricacies that aren’t necessarily suggested by the film’s general mundanity of style. Robertson, Jacobs and Gallagher are all very fine in their roles, as is a strong supporting cast including child actors Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine and Gavin MacIver-Wright, none of whom choke when faced with some difficult material for such young performers.

Those complexities, however, are somewhat incongruous in a film that surrenders to mediocrity with frustrating frequency. Chase doesn’t integrate the narrative and thematic elements into the horror-focused text of the film, stranding his most interesting concepts amidst too many rote scenes of overly familiar scare sequences, often shoehorned into a plot as though someone took a look over a rough cut and decided it needed more frights. That needn’t have been a concern had Chase adequately developed his central conceit, though here it seems he’s burdened himself with so many disparate ideas as to dilute its impact and breed confusion in the viewer. Come Play devotes an inordinate amount of time to detailing how Larry functions, yet never supplies us with a compelling reason for why he functions, and all that explaining is both illogical in the context of the characters and tiresome to endure.

By the end, Chase has thrown seemingly everything at the film in an attempt to turn that central, silly (though promising) idea of a monster in your cell phone into something tangible and truly, physically menacing. It turns, predictably, into yet another average contemporary horror film, one more dedicated to hastily papering over the cracks in its concept than to developing the genuinely smart, strong material it leaves by the wayside en route to a disappointing conclusion. That said, though the final scene lets it down, Come Play’s climax is arguably its best moment, finally synthesizing its thematic and stylistic drives in a profoundly unsettling image. It’s another example of the film’s abundant, yet unfulfilled potential.

Summary
More dedicated to hastily papering over the cracks in its concept than to developing the genuinely smart, strong material it leaves by the wayside en route to a disappointing conclusion.
40 %
Rough Play
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