‘Come Play’ Review: The Ghost in the Machine Has a Few Bugs in the Programming

While expanding a short film into a feature may not be a new invention, what matters is how the filmmaker innovates, fashioning a full garment out of the scrap of existing cloth. In “Come Play,” writer-director Jacob Chase takes the titular creature of his five-minute short “Larry” and imagines him as the primary instigator in fracturing a family — think “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” if the kind-hearted alien wanted to kidnap Elliot. But for all the ingenuity Chase brings to subverting the traditional “boy and his dog” formula, spinning it into a horror-fueled “boy and the dog he doesn’t want” story, the end result yields little more than a shrug.

Lonely 8-year-old Oliver Sutton (Azhy Robertson) has nonverbal autism and is reliant on his iPhone as his main form of communication with the world. Though he’s desperate to make friends, all that surrounds him are foes, like bullies Mateo (Jayden Marine), Zach (Gavin MacIver-Wright) and Byron (Winslow Fegley), who experienced a falling out with Oliver months prior. His parents Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) are in the process of separating and spend most of their time together arguing and stressing over their child’s well-being. That leaves Oliver to retreat into the comfort of his room, soothing himself by watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” episodes on his phone. Only there’s someone — or rather something — staring back at him from the other side of the screen.

That evil creature is Larry, a gangly, 10-foot-tall, skeletal monster with poor posture, pained movements and limited lung capacity, whose sorrowful loneliness drives him to harmful extremes. In the midst of the Sutton household’s upheaval, he introduces himself to Oliver via an illustrated children’s e-book entitled “Misunderstood Monsters,” which chronicles Larry’s horrific lore and his current mission to make a new friend.

As each page in his terrible tale is read, lights flicker, summoning Larry’s maleficent presence — which can be felt physically, but only seen on an electronic tablet or smartphone. And he’s tenacious about inserting himself into Oliver’s life, causing multiple disruptions, like scaring his potential plutonic pal and frightening schoolmates and family members. Once mom discovers the entity’s ultimate goal is to techno-port into their world and abscond with her child, the threat becomes more personally pressing.

Chase draws strong parallels between Oliver and Larry in their character construction. Perhaps too close a connection. Both are similarly ostracized in their respective communities for being different, seeking a forever friendship during a dark time in their lives. They both strain to verbalize their needs with others: Oliver, when overstimulated, moans and spins in circles. Larry’s belabored breathing doesn’t allow him to speak. One cleverly-cut scene has him speaking sentences through heavily-edited movie clips on the television.

There are two ways to look at Larry’s actions. He scares because he cares. Depending on the eye of the beholder, his evil deeds, while traumatic, could be construed as protective and encouraging toward Oliver’s development. He beats up Oliver’s main adversary, helps his mom with her chores, offers him a thoughtful gift indicating their shared interest, and ultimately guides him to a monumental breakthrough. Even though the kid is the hero we should clearly be rooting for, the filmmaker conjures equal amounts of empathy and compassion for the monster. That serves to add complexity to the characterizations, but balancing both sides muddles the poignancy of the climax.

Though there’s grounded, real-world sentiment infused into the narrative — that those who are isolated are vulnerable to evil forces — Chase struggles to craft viscerally stimulating supernatural frights to complement those enlightened thoughts. He fumbles all too frequently when creating a compelling atmospheric draw. The fantastical set pieces are awkward, repeating similar tonal notes, and not quite nailing the timing of the terror. They either overstay the tension or undercook the urgency. Marty’s claustrophobic tollbooth, the setting of the original short, is visited three times when once would have been sufficient. The material itself feels outdated with its recycled early-aughts tech panic notions, let alone some goofy dialogue. There’s no way to watch with a straight face as Jacobs yells “Stay away from my son!” at an iPad, but bless her for the gravitas she gives that line.

On the positive side, Robertson carries the large load of the film on his small shoulders and emerges an adept performer, tethering us to the picture’s emotional pull. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s lighting design speaks to the light and dark natures embodied within the two lead characters. Composer Roque Baños’ lush arrangements give the picture a heightened sonic appeal and do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to augmenting the family’s mounting plight. Editor Gregory Plotkin’s slow dissolves, despite their infrequency, add a throwback texture to the transitions between major sequences. David J. Bomba’s production design, showing the family home in a state of disrepair with its water-damaged kitchen and newly spackled hallway, is symbolically reflective of the characters’ marital and parental relationships.

It’s a shame Chase wasn’t able to transform his intense, insular five-minute short into a potent feature as successfully as fellow horror helmers David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”) or Andy Muschietti (“Mama”). The title stands as a beckoning call to audiences to join in the devilish delights he’s conjured. Yet the scares in the tale fail to scale from a mobile device to the big screen.

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