Come Play has a lot in common with the 2016 horror movie Lights Out. Both were based on short, proof-of-concept horror films that landed the directors an opportunity to expand their idea to feature length. These original short films were simple but effective tales about a monster in the dark, and they both ended with a reveal that the monster was made of cheap CGI. With studio backing comes a bigger budget, however, so the feature adaptations take creature design a step further. David F. Sandberg, director of Lights Out, expanded his lighting artistry, shrouding his monster in shadows. Come Play director Jacob Chase takes a different route: making his monster a puppet.
The creature in Come Play has roughly the same origins as its short film counterpart. A nighttime parking lot attendant finds a tablet (not an Apple iPad, mind you, but a brandless clone—the budget wasn’t that big) in the lost and found, not knowing that the tablet’s screen is a gateway for a monster named Larry. Larry is lonely, according to a digital children’s book that pops up on everyone’s devices when he’s around, and he just wants a friend—but he’s a scary, dangly, teethy mess of taut skin and crackling bones, so people wisely assume that being friends with him is an unfun time. A creation of the esteemed Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Larry has a real weight to him, and you can never tell that he’s being steered by puppeteers. Unless all the puppeteers were spiders. He does look like his limbs are being yanked around by several spider puppeteers.
Once Larry’s out of the box, the story from the short inflates significantly. The parking lot attendant brings the tablet home to his autistic son Oliver, who is non-verbal and uses an app to vocalize short sentences. Oliver—played by Azhy Robertson, the kid from Marriage Story, who we were all looking forward to hearing scream more—doesn’t have any friends besides his parents, and his palpable loneliness makes him a perfect target for Larry. The monster starts communicating with Oliver through his speech app, and before long, he’s interrupting episodes of SpongeBob to climb through the screen and harass Oliver in the real world. It’s up to Oliver’s mother Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) to catch on to what’s happening and save her son from non-consensual friendship.
It’s at this point that the plot threads added to take the story from five minutes to ninety-five start to unravel, and fast. Come Play initially gives off the impression of a good ol’ fashioned creature feature—Larry is introduced before the title even appears on screen—but the script collapses into a merry-go-round of lazy horror cliches once the ball gets rolling. The adults go from disbelief to intuiting all the rules of a supernatural monster in the blink of an eye, everything that the light doesn’t touch is sure to contain a jump scare, and Larry is relegated to the role of only being seen in bits and pieces until the final confrontations. It’s the classic Jaws method, minus the craft and tension that made Jaws work, as is often the case with movies aping the shark. There are some clever ideas here and there as Larry is ushered into visibility, but nothing so good as the shambling physicality of the puppet in full view. The Come Play team did not play to its strengths.
The story is formulaic and frequently dull, but it’s earnest, and treats its young protagonist with respect. But then it reaches the critical point in its crusade to ruin Larry: giving him rationale, like when the shark in Jaws gave that speech about pollution in the ocean. The raison d’être that Larry gives himself is only one line, but it is so unfathomably dumb and moralizing that it threatens to drag down the entire movie. In essence, Come Play becomes a combination of horror film and “look up from your phone” PSA, and the two fit together as well as a head-on collision makes a Transformer. Without additional deepening or elaboration of the message, it even comes across a little ableist, as if disabled people relying on technology is something to be ashamed of. That may not be what the director intended to get across, but the movie is too sloppy to counter its worst implications. That’s probably the biggest difference between Come Play and Lights Out—only the latter seems to know what it’s doing.