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'Come Play' builds relatable horror via smartphone app

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
From left, Gavin Maciver-Wright, Winslow Fegley, Azhy Robertson and Jayden Marine star in "Come Play." The movie is playing at Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Note: We are continuing to review theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic, though please be aware that indoor moviegoing does carry risk during this time. Please follow every health and safety guideline outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as guidelines provided by local health officials in your area.

These days, with the relentless crush of anxiety-inducing news, misinformation and bad takes just a thumb flick away on our ubiquitous screens, it really does feel like demons have possessed our smartphones. Mark my words, there will be a horror film titled "Doomscroll" out within the year.

That's what makes the supernatural horror flick "Come Play" feel, in a strange way, deeply relatable, whether it's Gillian Jacobs smashing all of her electronics (we need the GIFs, stat), or the profound message about forging personal connection, outside of screens, as protection from invasive digital information, in whatever form that takes.

"Come Play" is written and directed by Jacob Chase, based on his 2017 short, "Larry." Our protagonist is Oliver (Azhy Robertson, of "Marriage Story") a child with nonverbal autism who uses a smartphone equipped with a communication app to speak. His hapless parents are the well-meaning and frazzled Sarah (Jacobs), and the well-meaning and inattentive Marty (John Gallagher Jr.), who are in the process of breaking up.

Home is confusing, and school is isolating for the young Oliver. One night, after charging his phone, he spots a strange new app, an e-book or game of sorts, called "Misunderstood Monsters." As he swipes the digital pages, the story of Larry, a lonely, lanky skeletonoid creature looking for friendship emerges. Then the lights flicker, and pounding footsteps grow closer. Larry's not really here, is he?

Turns out, he is. Feeding off electricity and desperate to take a friend to his demonic dark side forever, Larry starts stalking the vulnerable Oliver across devices, his visage, invisible to the naked eye, detected only through technology like camera apps. This simple but high-concept premise of the ghost in the phone only works with a hero like Oliver and the challenges of his own self-expression that Chase has built into the story. Oliver can't verbally communicate the intricacies of his experiences, whether it be with Larry, or school bullies, and the haunting persists as far as it does because he's not heard or believed.

Chase relies on visual storytelling for story beats and scares, and Robertson's performance to establish a young hero who is by no means wordless, he just has different means of communication.

As a horror film, it leans much more on ratings-friendly jump scares than blood and gore, but crucially, Chase sets up the rules (not an explanation) of this supernatural story and then follows them, one of the most important and underrated aspects of a successful horror film. Because the demon feeds on electrical juice, most of the sequences take place in one setting, at night, which offers Chase ample opportunity to elicit an evocative mood and tone, and some surprising spooks.

With its childlike perspective (and PG-13 rating), "Come Play" is more of a gateway horror flick for younger audiences interested in the genre and won't necessarily satisfy bloodthirsty gorehounds. The story is deceptively simple. However, built around a universal quandary of our tech-obsessed modern world, underpinned with a folkloric tale that appeals to our most primal child selves, yearning for acceptance and connection, it has a heavy metaphorical resonance. In another year, "Come Play" could have been a rather forgettable genre exercise, but its message about finding human connection beyond the beckoning screen, is surprisingly poignant, and rings especially true right now.

'COME PLAY'

2.5 stars

Cast: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr.

Directed by Jacob Chase.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for terror, frightening images and some language.