A Scary Friend Request: ‘Come Play’

Screen time turns into scream time for an unhappy family.

Jacob Chase reanimates E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as a malevolent creature in his jump scare-heavy Come Play. Adapting his own short film, Larry (2017), Chase replaces E.T.‘s elongated finger of healing light with claws that resemble Wolverine’s. If Steven Spielberg in the early 1980s was suggesting that we embrace the alien other, Chase makes the case for running as far from the unfamiliar as humanly possible. But the director complicates the story by placing a child on the Autism spectrum at its center. 

With his mop top hair and enormous brown eyes, Oliver (Azhy Robinson) is a doppelgänger for Danny from The Shining. Come Play is primarily filmed from his point of view. But unlike Danny muttering “redrum” and even less like the emotionally eloquent Elliott in E.T., Oliver is still preverbal in grade school. He can only communicate via an app that forms words on his mobile phone. Oliver won’t look anyone — including his parents — in the eye, and he hasn’t been able to form any friendships. There’s a helpful teacher at school who spends time with him outside of the regular classroom hours, but besides her, he’s an extremely isolated child.

Chase’s sci-fi horror film is part of a genre that Stranger Things (2016) revived and validated. But it was Amblin Entertainment, with films like E.T., Gremlins, and The Goonies, that first popularized children’s adventure stories for a generation of moviegoers. Come Play capitalizes on the nostalgic template of a family or community confronting and then exorcising their collective demons, as in Poltergeist. Tonally, though, this movie is more severe and less rambunctious than most of those ’80s films.

Chase’s movie is a solemn commentary about our contemporary addiction to TV, computer, and mobile screens. Emily Flake’s New Yorker cartoon features a horned monster menacing a child tucked into bed. The creature leans through the doorway from a shadowy hallway and says, “I’m not a metaphor.” The director’s creature, on the other hand, is a metaphor through and through. Larry also doesn’t come from outer space. “He” emerges from digital screens, the inner space that creates endless distractions and self-imposed silos. In Come Play, everyone in Oliver’s family is suffering from loneliness.

As Oliver’s loving but frustrated mother, Sarah, Gillian Jacobs is moving further away from the more comedic roles she’s played on shows like Community and Love. “As an actor, you feel this urge to do a genre you haven’t done in a while,” she explains in a phone interview. “Just to remind yourself and everyone else that you can do it to stretch your acting muscles.”

During our conversation, Jacobs tells me that she read the script for Come Play while editing a short suspense film she’d directed, with “creepy reveals.” When she met Chase, they saw eye to eye on the idea that the director wanted Larry, the ghoulish E.T., to be a puppet rather than a CGI creature. “I love that it tied into the nostalgia for those ‘80s Amblin films with practical effects,” she says.

Sarah’s contending with Oliver’s autism, a crumbling marriage, and a scary monster that wants to abduct her child. This is motherhood the way that Dee Wallace had to play it in E.T. and in the canine-centric Cujo. Jacobs admits to not having seen Cujo, or many other horror films. Even though she can rationally talk herself through the magic, movies still have an effect on her. “I remember I could barely watch David O. Russell’s The Fighter, because I didn’t like them punching each other,” she says. “I’m telling myself, ‘You know as well as anyone that when you see blood in a movie it’s all fake.’” 

Before Community, the actor, and now director, couldn’t convince anyone to cast her in a comedy. Immediately after the series ended, casting directors only considered her for comedies. “I’ve been trying to do films in different genres. The Fear Street movies (based on the books by R.L. Stine) will be on Netflix next year,” she says. “And I did a Twilight Zone episode that came out earlier this year.”

Following the release of Come Play, Marvel’s 616 docu series will include an episode that Jacobs directed. “Higher Further Faster” focuses on the women who worked at Marvel Comics as writers, artists, and editors. The series will be airing on Disney+ starting November 20. 

Come Play is in theaters October 30.

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