Unlike, say, Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, Larry, the boogeyman bad guy of the horror movie Come Play, doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to last names. “Larry just wants a friend,” we’re told, in the scary tale that introduces him.
He’s sort of a high-tech Babadook — all bony and hunched-over, and looking as if he could use a hamburger as much as a friend — who materializes via a storytelling app that spins Larry’s yarn via finger-swipes. Like the Babadook, Larry is a character who’s threatening to jump off the page (or, in this case, the screen) and get you.
His quarry in this movie, adapted by writer-director Jacob Chase from his 2017 short film Larry, is a little boy named Oliver (Azhy Robertson), whose autism prevents him from communicating except by a synthetic-speech app on his cellphone. One day Larry shows up, courtesy of a digital campfire tale called Misunderstood Monster that pops up on Oliver’s device.
Like Oliver, who has no friends, Larry is lonely, perhaps even the misbegotten manifestation of loneliness itself: a supernatural entity born of our obsession with screens in lieu of human connection.
But he doesn’t just want to befriend Oliver; he wants to carry the boy away into his digital world.
The frisson of cultural topicality gives Come Play a midrange metaphorical heft that allows the otherwise predictable narrative to punch above its weight. But despite the subtext of screen addiction, it is still essentially a by-the-book monster movie, albeit with better-than-average jump scares and clever rendering of Larry.
For the most part, he can be seen only through the camera lens of a cell phone or tablet device. In one nice scene, evocative of The Invisible Man, he’s briefly delineated by sheets of newspaper blown against him by wind through a deserted parking lot.
Otherwise, Larry moves like unseen electricity, so his presence is heralded by lightbulbs fizzling out, which enables the goings-on to transpire in near total darkness for much of the film. That — along with the now-cliched sound effect of knuckle-cracking that accompanies Larry’s arrival — is a little annoying.
What made The Babadook so great was its metaphorical dimension: Was the creature from the book merely a projection of maternal mental illness?
Here, there’s only a little of that ambiguity. Although Oliver’s parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) are separating, Chase doesn’t suggest that Oliver’s psychic trauma has anything to do with the appearance of Larry.
Instead, the implication is much more mundane: Larry feeds on sadness and isolation, in the way that some other cinematic demons feast on fear.
Come Play bears far more similarity to Lights Out, in its use of the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t trope. The two movies are also alike in one other way: the theme of maternal sacrifice.
At this point in history, when we’re all perhaps yearning for someone to smack the Frankenstein in our iPhones out of our desperate little hands, that makes for a less than wholly satisfying resolution.
Come Play ** 1/2 (out of four)
Directed by: Jacob Chase, with Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, and John Gallagher Jr.
Playing at: Area theaters.
Run time: 1 hour, 36 min.