One thing we could use more these days is gateway horror. There have been a lot of animated spooky flicks for children in recent years, but not so much live-action. Basically, they don’t really make ’em like they used to, when they made The Monster Squad, for example. And as we’ll discuss in this review of Come Play, that’s where this movie might find its niche.
The Rules of the Game: What’s This All About?
Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a kid who lives with his mom Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and dad Marty (John Gallagher, Jr.). Mom and Dad have drifted apart, and are clearly in the process of separating. However, that might not be Oliver’s biggest problem. He has autism and is nonverbal, so he uses electronic devices not only to communicate, but to experience the world. With so much time spent staring at screens, it’s almost unsurprising to find out that something is staring back.
image via Focus Features
An entity who identifies himself as Larry is watching Oliver through devices like his phone and tablets. Through a digital storybook, Larry shares his tale of woe. He has no friends and in fact, others actively reject him. For a kid like Oliver, who is already at a remove due to his struggles with speech, and on top of that, doesn’t have friends either, this is obviously a compelling hook. But Oliver isn’t so easily convinced, which is also understandable, because everything about Larry is unsettling. That feeling only gets stronger the harder Larry tries to break through and especially once you realize what he wants.
Horror for Children
How do you do, fellow kids? I too am in CHILL MODE. (image via Focus Features)
Don’t get me wrong–this is not a kids’ movie. But for tweens interested in scary movies, this would probably be a decent introduction. Larry basically functions like a ghost character–most of the time, you can’t see him unless you’re looking through a screen, so the movie relies a lot on eerie sounds. So it’s not too terribly scary for younger viewers, although they and adults alike will probably startle at the jumpscares.
In addition, because of Oliver’s age, he and his peers don’t really use strong language. Some of the boys in his class do call him “Moaner Boner,” though, because of the vocalizations he makes. They’re also not very nice to him in some scenes. If you’re the kind of parent that likes to seize teachable moments, then these parts would be a good jumping-off point later to discuss bullying.
But beyond that, there’s not a whole lot I think most parents would find objectionable. On a scariness scale, I would compare this to something like ET, which is apropos since Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is one of this film’s production companies. I will say, at risk of spoilers, that some children may find the ending upsetting.
Come Play Review
Now that I’ve said all that, let’s talk about horror for adults, the actual Come Play review. Because while this is a good starter film for youths, will it impress their possibly jaded parents? To that end, if you’re looking for scares, then there are some excellent sequences in the film. Marty, for example, works as a nighttime attendant in the world’s creepiest parking booth–one that’s just set alone in the center of a parking lot. Every scene set here works, because of that desolation. One scene in particular, which employs wind-blown newspapers to creepy effect, was especially shit-disturbing.
image via Focus Features
Where the film is weakest, though, is in its characterization. Jacobs, for instance, is a more-than-capable performer, but the script doesn’t serve her well. She tries, but feels limited by a fairly flat character. Oliver, too, often feels like an afterthought even though he’s ostensibly the focus of this film. Gallagher, a veteran of recent horror, gets off easier, but his character has a more developed arc than the other two. (And since I’m talking about characters, I must mention Winslow Fegley’s performance as Byron as a standout.)
Overall, though, I think this is worth a watch. It’s not as silly as its story certainly could be, and it has some choice spooky moments. (I, an ancient swamp creature numb to any frights, did not find it particularly scary, but I’m making space for your possibly more delicate constitution.) It also has the courage both to be a horror movie about loneliness and to end on what some may see as a bummer note. Others, however, might find it touching, and that’s proof enough for me that it’s worthwhile. A horror movie that prompts discussion? I could get used to that, if horror films would let me.
Come Play is now available in theaters.
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featured image via Focus Features
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.