NB: slightly spoilery.
At the climax of Come Play, which was co-produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, the key poster image of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is restaged as a human child’s hand reaches, one finger outstretched, towards the spindly digit of an inhuman being who wants to be the kid’s friend and saviour. Only this time it’s theoretically terrifying, because – as has been explained in the online children’s story Misunderstood Monsters – once ‘Larry’ gets hold, he never lets go. The chill is sidestepped as another hand reaches in to provide an alternative, love-and-life-affirming finish to a ghost/horror movie that could do with being a little more ruthless.
Writer-director Jacob Chase here expands his short Larry (2017) into a feature – a path also taken by Lights Out, Mama and even The Babadook, all of which swirl around in the DNA of this story along with A Monster Calls and Z. Indeed, Come Play is what happens when the raw material of The Babadook is reshaped into a multiplex-friendly creepypasta spooker along the lines of Slenderman or Ouija. Its central family drama is workable – Mom (Gillian Jacobs) and Dad (John Gallagher Jr) struggle to cope with autistic, non-verbal son Oliver (Azhy Robertson, as angel-eyed as any Spielberg waif from the 1980s), not noticing that the screens which have become his companion since other children his age were alienated from him have yielded a no-longer-imaginary friend considerably more threatening that SpongeBob Squarepants (who features heavily). Some time is spent on developing the long-limbed, hump-backed Larry’s m.o., as he manifests in the real world by manipulating electrical devices – leading to scare sequences that involve the ancient kids’ party game of turning the lights on and off and an updated-for-the-app-era version of the old convention of the invisible ghost who shows up in photographs.
Not completely away from his roots, Chase stages several set-pieces like self-contained short films. Oliver’s father works nights in a booth on a little-visited parking lot, the location for a couple of nicely-choreographed sequences – in one of which, a sinister wind blows newspapers against the invisible Larry, whose shape is outlined … while a later bit of business involves a gadget used to calculate distance from physical objects, which shows that something solid but unseen is moving towards Oliver. A disastrous sleepover when Oliver’s mother tries to encourage him to be friends with local kids also plays nice games with gadgetry and objects moving of their own accord, and a gag with light-bulbs evokes another key Spielberg credit, Poltergeist.
Clunkier are the plot mechanics, which get explained several times over. Larry becomes less scary the more he’s seen and the clearer it becomes that this isn’t the sort of film where children or parents or even pets are liable to fall victim. Even the happy, if bittersweet outcome – Larry gets a friend, Oliver gets a ghost mother – feels second-hand, a variation of schtick used in Mama and The Orphanage. Sensitive and thoughtful, even if its treatment of the issues of autism has an ‘inspirational TV movie’ feel, it could still do with a touch more crypt-keepery stuff. Would it have hurt to have Larry chew the head off just one little bully?
The original short film.