Daring gene in you or not, the best thing to do when you see a battered van with “Free Sweets” spray-painted on the sides is to ignore it. So when your devices boot up an e-book titled “Misunderstood Monsters,” you do the same.
The parking lot attendant (Joe Calarco) in the short film Larry didn’t, however. The result is a brief friendship with a humanoid creature (the titular Larry) that ends with it grinning and him panicking. For this feature-length expansion, Come Play, also directed by Jacob Chase, the leading role is shifted from a grown-up to a kid, making the advertised promise that this is “a terrifying new vision in horror” debatable. Even in Larry, which, while crafted with freakish beauty and agility from Jin Yan Cheng and the team at effects house Mr. X, the creature exists in a society that has uber-amplified Slender Man. Hardcore horror fans are also familiar with his lesser-known cousin Ningen, and no doubt similar cryptids with crackling elongated limbs (which capture the decaying looks of Mitch McConnell).
If there is a fitting place for novelty, it has to be in the two young’uns, Oliver (Azhy Robertson) and Byron (Winslow Fegley), considering it’s this early in their careers and both display a tangible and endearing level of commitment to their roles — Robertson as an autistic tech-dependent Oliver, and Fegley is Oliver’s vicious tormentor. With Byron and his crew at school and the inconsolable rift between mom Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and dad Marty (John Gallagher Jr.) at home, Larry sees an opening to Oliver. It is lonely and so is he, so read the story and “friends we’ll be!” The human is not likely to survive the process, though.
Chase’s directing skills really shine when Come Play gets to prove why it’s a horror title, both in his preference to let cinematographer Maxime Alexandre’s tense-inducing camera movements play out without interruptions and his use of the unseen to terrify. The best examples all take place in a gigantic and sparsely lit parking lot, in many ways a callback to the short film since Marty’s job is a parking lot attendant and Marty will endure familiar gotchas after coming across the story. Moments involving Oliver aren’t too shabby either with the staging effectively impresses how vulnerable he is — his usually reliable one-way speech app is now talking back at him, or that his Sticky Hand has landed on a yet-visible Larry that is just inches from him.
As a writer, Chase lets himself down along with the promoted ‘newness.’ Both parents embody precisely the same traits and dynamics seen in contemporary horrors, dad is again distant and disbelieving while mom is again overworked and fragile. Sarah, regardless of Jacobs’ focus, is particularly short-changed when the film’s drama stems from four parts irrationality to one part paranormal activity, which in turn diminishes a finale meant to leave an emotional trace. Don’t forget that Larry describes himself as “misunderstood.”
Perhaps the saving grace here is that everyone in this household likes to take initiative to avoid danger, which in turn amplifies how threatening the creature can be. And it’s this character-based momentum that keeps Come Play’s shortcomings at bay, for before you notice them, Larry brings another well-designed scare your way.