The premise of the horror movie "Come Play" is overly complicated, but essentially it's that even the Geek Squad can't help you when your devices try to slaughter you.
"Come Play" resembles 2016's scarier "Lights Out" in that it's an expansion of a short film that attracted a lot of buzz and its perils have to do with whether the power is on. In "Lights Out," vicious creatures lurked wherever there wasn't a lamp. But in "Come Play," they enter our world through a tablet computer on which Oliver, a boy with autism, receives a friend request while watching "SpongeBob SquarePants."
Writer/director Jacob Chase seems to be a fan of Japanese-style horror, which is all about the mounting dread of something awful that may or may not ever happen. "Come Play" also has a slow build, but Chase doesn't get as much mileage out of it as, say, "The Grudge," because his skeleton-like creature has a been-there/not-been-scared-by-that quality and the movie's fussy concept is ill-defined.
How does one foil Larry, the bad guy? How does Larry feast on loneliness? Why does Larry need windows as well as iPads to menace us? What does this have to do with a falling-out that Oliver had with former chum Byron (Winslow Fegley)? Wouldn't it be creepier if Larry had a more menacing name like, I don't know, Cecil? The answers to these questions remain vague.
Although "Come Play" doesn't come to play, horror-wise, it is a surprisingly effective family drama, powered by a better-than-average cast.
Azhy Robertson, whose resemblance to "The Shining" star Danny Lloyd is an asset, is quite moving as Oliver. Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr. ("Spring Awakening") is loving but baffled as Oliver's dad, and as Oliver's mom, Gillian Jacobs and her huge, startled eyes are the movie's secret weapons. Even before the creepy stuff starts, she's exhausted from caring for both Oliver and her head-in-the-clouds husband, so it's both shocking and relatable when she finally erupts at her son, "Can you just be normal for one second?"
She takes it back immediately, but that seems like something a mom in this situation might say, or at least think. Chase is similarly attuned to the interactions of Oliver and his former friend. Although Byron initially comes off as the nasty kid we're supposed to hope becomes Victim Numero Uno, "Come Play" ends up caring about Byron and why the friendship with Oliver faltered. It's a surprisingly sharp character detail in a movie that, at least in its marketing, is being pitched as pure terror.
But it seems unlikely that folks who brave sitting in movie theaters this week are looking for a solemn, psychology-based drama about stressed family dynamics.
There's a germ of terror in "Come Play," based on the idea that you can move out of a haunted house but you can never escape your own online profile. Unfortunately, the frightening stuff never arrives in "Come Play." Maybe it's scarier if you watch it on your phone?
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367 • @HewittStrib
⋆⋆½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for terror, frightening images and some language.
Theaters: Wide release.