Think back in the recesses of your mind, what was your first horror film? Mine was Poltergeist, a film that I assumed was safe because it carried a PG rating but soon learned, with my sister and her friends, that this movie, despite being tame in the violence department, did not come to fuck around. Everyone has their first, and there are certain films that can ease young ones into the horror genre better than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre can. Come Play, the debut feature by Jacob Chase, is one of these films. Produced by Amblin Entertainment, the production company of Steven Spielberg, Come Play already gives off a strong Poltergeist feeling from the film’s tame, 1980s fantasy-horror vibes, but does the film hold up among the crop of films in the age of Blumhouse?
Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a young boy who lives with non-verbal autism which prevents him from speaking. Misunderstood at school and with his parents (Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr.) constantly fighting at home, Oliver’s uphill battle of feeling normal is even worsened when he discovers a malevolent spirit named Larry living within his electronic devices, wanting a “friend” to take for his own. Oliver then must find an effective way to communicate the danger of Larry to those around him before it is too late.
Come Play admittedly doesn’t take many risks in its execution, to which I would argue that it doesn’t seem to be the goal of the film unlike so many other horror films of today. It’s a great starter piece for those young ones looking for their jumping-off point into horror, as it’s just scary enough to fit the bill. This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t without its thrills for seasoned fans of the genre, as there are some wonderfully devilish little sequences throughout; it just may not come together to a full experience in the way it was made to for newcomers.
Coming off his supporting role in last year’s Oscar-winning Marriage Story, Azhy Robertson runs away with Come Play in the palm of his hand. There’s an argument to be made that an actor with autism should be in the role, but this is a tender and respectful performance that fully makes Come Play worthwhile to check out in and of itself. Much like his chemistry with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Robertson wonderfully plays off of the undeniable talents of Jacobs and Gallagher Jr., albeit with a much different vibe than Marriage Story. And on top of all of this, all of it is done without the utterance of a single word throughout the film.
What is refreshing about Come Play are the amounts of emotion and empathy that play into the whole endeavor. The film, at its core, is about the importance of understanding and listening to those around us who might not always have a prominent voice. It’s a lovely ode to the tender power that family and friendship bring to someone’s life, packaged in a moderately spooky package.
In the spooky department, Come Play hits its marks about 60% of the time. There are sequences that utilize technology in a way that builds a great amount of tension and suspense leading up to the big scare. The issue comes when Come Play begins to recycle a lot of the same climaxes for each scene making a good deal of the film’s second half feel repetitive and derivative of itself. Starter horror or not, there are enough tricks one can have up their sleeve within a 90-minute runtime to prevent this from happening. Luckily, much of the film’s more repetitive moments are saved by Roque Baños’s lovingly wondrous score.
Come Play is a nicely crafted film that prioritizes character relationships and understanding over scares, which isn’t particularly a bad thing when you consider the film’s target demographic. It’s refreshing to not always be bogged down by horror bathed in violent nihilism and to take a deep breath of something pleasant every once in a while. The film does suffer from a repackaging of scares as the film carries on, and it never takes enough risks creatively to shake anyone remotely familiar with the horror genre greatly, but for modern horror with a gentle touch, you could do a lot worse.
And once again, I say because distributors don’t know how to act right now: see this as safely as possible right now. Even if that means waiting.
In select theaters October 30th, 2020.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.