Lonely Monsters Just Want to Hold Your Hand in Eerie ‘Come Play’

Come Play” is a fairy tale for an age where children are raised gazing at the glow of their iPads. Director Jacob Chase forgoes overcomplicated narratives for very basic, simple ideas expressed through shadowy images and the simple switch of your phone camera. It’s also about how loneliness can feel monstrous and even the most disturbing creature just wants to hold your hand. Chase’s film is an expansion of his 2017 short “Larry,” which set all its action in one effective setting, a toll booth where a man finds an iPad that conjures a being seeking companionship. “When I made the short I didn’t necessarily have an idea for the feature. It was like a dream scenario. But when I got the opportunity when studios were interested I thought up the feature very quick. What I wanted to make was a genre movie that had a lot of heart and compassion,” Chase told Entertainment Voice while discussing the making of “Come Play.”

The story is set in one of those breezy suburban towns out of a John Carpenter or Stephen King yarn. Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is the autistic son of Sarah (Gillian Jacobs) and Marty (John Gallagher Jr.). Never speaking and always communicating via text, Oliver is the object of his class bullies. He soon begins finding a strange digital book appearing on his smartphone, “Misunderstood Monsters.” It tells the story of a particular entity, Larry, who is depicted crouched in a corner, alone. Marty works the night shift at a toll booth where in the lost and found box he finds an iPad, which, when turned on, displays the same storybook. It’s a horror film, so you can imagine what comes next. Strange sounds at home, an invisible force moving objects and Oliver realizing he is being not only followed, but summoned by Larry.

“Come Play” is an exercise in practical effects and spooky atmospherics. Do not even bother with thinking too hard about the logic of the film’s world. Chase dispenses with complicated origin stories. Larry exists, he’s out there inside your gadgets and wants to pull you into his dark netherworld. What makes it entertaining is Chase’s eye for generating tension by keeping the camera staring into a dark corner and even more with how Larry, designed like a gangly giant cousin of the monsters in “A Quiet Place,” is brought forth via practical effects made by Jim Henson’s famous studio. Larry was also an unnerving practical effect in Chase’s original short. “The very earliest incarnation of Larry in the short film came from a costume I made in my garage for this haunted house I used to run. It was this tall costume I made with stilts that was also part puppet. I still had him in my garage and decided to use him in the short. Now when I took that general silhouette and translated it to the feature, what I was asking the Jim Henson Creature Shop to do was yes, you want him to have a creepy silhouette from a distance, but at the same time I wanted to focus on him feeling broken. It should look almost painful to be Larry. The same goes for the sound design. The more painful it ‘sounds’ to be him the more empathy we feel. You just also get better reactions from kids and actors on set if they have an actual monster they can react off of.”

Chase inevitably drew from his own fears to craft the script. “I drew a lot on my personal experiences and emotions for all the characters in the film. I think the real fear for me that came from my own life is the fear of not having friendship or companionship, of being lonely. You know, I grew up a pretty lonely kid to be honest. I had a lovely family, a divorced family, we had a lot of problems as well but specifically I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid. It was very painful for me. So I really related to Oliver and to Larry. Every character in this story is suffering from some sort of loneliness. For me it was less the monster that I was afraid of but the monster inside.”

There’s an authentic family dynamic to the characters as well, even as they battle a supernatural threat. Sarah and Marty have the sincerity of two parents desperate to protect their child, but are powerless before a literal monster. “Steven Spielberg read the script and sent me an audition tape for Azhy who had auditioned for another role. He said ‘you really should consider this kid.’ We saw hundreds and hundreds of kids but we immediately settled on Azhy because he has so much imagination and empathy for a character who is nothing to him. Once we had him we had to cast parents around him played by characters who could be just as empathetic as Azhy.”

Azhy Robertson, who has appeared in notable films already like “Marriage Story,” connected to Chase in a unique way through a particular, shared experience. “Jacob, since he was a child actor like me, he sort of understood and gave me room to be emotional,” Robertson told Entertainment Voice. “He understood what I had to do and gave me directions in a way where I felt he understood what I was going through…offset it didn’t feel like a horror movie at all. Gillian was also funny and could talk about anything, including video games and music, but when I needed to get emotional she helped with that process as well. John is also hilarious and gave me room to explore emotions.”

That wider sense of bonding between the cast also helps the more family-oriented aspects of “Come Play.” It begins as a pounding horror fest, akin to more of a haunted house movie, but as Oliver, Sarah and Marty uncover more about Larry and begin communicating with the creature, the movie turns into one of those parables in the style of “Mama.” The gruesome creature becomes a metaphor wanting to feel loved.

“I think that’s one of the things I love about horror. You can have a movie that’s about a monster that comes out of a little boy’s cellphone but it’s about something else,” Gallagher Jr. told Entertainment Voice about the deeper layers to the movie. “You can’t always do that in other genres. It’s about technology and loneliness and the struggle to communicate, the struggle to connect, and if you are feeling lonely and feel like you can’t communicate then the internet, smartphones, we have it all right here, so many connections to be made and yet not. If you rely too heavy on it you end up paying some kind of cost. Jacob followed that through to the worst case scenario (laughs).”

Come Play” releases Oct. 30 in select cities and Nov. 20 on Premium VOD