In a vacuum, Come Play is a fairly smart and mildly jump-scary slice of PG-13 horror for your Halloween weekend. It even finds an unexpected and satisfying way out of the monstrous concept that it fosters.
But the feature debut for writer/director Jacob Chase has trouble escaping the shadow of two other films. One is Larry, Chase’s own short from 2017, and the other is the modern horror classic that clearly inspired him.
Larry is the star of Misunderstood Monsters, a story app that Oliver, a non-verbal autistic boy (Azhy Robertson from Marriage Story), has stumbled onto. Larry says he just wants a friend, but he’s too scary, and Oliver resists.
But Larry just won’t be denied. And it isn’t long before Oliver’s estranged parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher, Jr.) have to admit they really are being terrorized by an entity let in through the screens on their many devices.
A monster from a troubled child’s story manifests itself in a home unsettled by emotional turmoil. Though the metaphors in Come Play are geared more toward multiplex than art house, the blueprint is plenty familiar.
Chase does prove himself to be an able technician, exhibiting some nifty camerawork and a fine sense of visual creepiness. But the road to his effective finale drags from a lack of solid scares and the feeling of filler that can plague a short film stepping up in class.
There are some valid ideas at work here. They’re not terribly urgent or original, but Come Play isn’t pretending they are. It’s a film with little interest in overthinking, for horror fans not interested in films that do.
Who wants to scare your kids? Because there is ample opportunity to do so without breaking any laws. Yes, year after year the cinemas are lousy with God-awful PG-13 horror (Rings, Ouija, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man) aiming to cash in on the underaged market with jump scares and lazy writing.
But, if you look closely you can find some scary shit. Nightmares in the making. So, we looked closely…
6. The Grudge (2004)
The amazing thing about The Grudge’s PG-13 rating is the remarkable amount of violence in this film. There is a death, dismemberment or supernatural act in very nearly every single scene in the movie.
There’s also the larger, scarier idea of a contagious haunted house. You’re not just in jeopardy when you’re in it. This shit comes home with you.
The Grudge is one of the rare American remakes of J-horror that stands up, partly because the antagonists from the original are involved (Yuya Ozeki as the terrifyingly adorable Toshio and Takako Fuji as the just terrifying Kayako). It’s also a benefit that director Takashi Shimizu (who also wrote and directed the original, Ju-on) is back, and that he keeps the setting in Japan. Plus those creepy-ass sounds!
5. Insidious (2010)
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell took a break from each other after a disappointing follow up to their breakout 2004 collaboration Saw (Dead Silence—yeesh). The the pair were back strong in 2010 with a wildly imaginative descent into “the further.”
This is the film where Wan finds his way as a director, and a director of horror in particular. Whannell’s bold story offers plenty of opportunity to work, and the atmosphere, practical effects and clever use of jump scares has become the trademark of the filmmaker.
They are also the elements that help this genuinely frightening effort maintain a PG-13 rating. Man, this guy knows how to milk that rating, doesn’t he? That lady in black, that red-faced guy, the whole organ thing, that kid? Tiptoe through the Tulips?
The pair takes a ghost story premise and does what very few people can do well: shows us what we are afraid of.
4. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Oh, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.
A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.
With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.
Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.
3. The Woman in Black (2012)
Director James Watkins was fresh off his underseen, wickedly frightening Eden Lake. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (working from Susan Hill’s novel) had recently written the films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both of which are awesome. And star Daniel Radcliffe had done something or other that people remembered…
I’d have been worried that Radcliffe chose another supernatural adventure as his first big, post-Hogwarts adventure were it not for the filmmaking team putting the flick together. Goldman’s witty intelligence and Watkins’s sense of what scares us coalesce beautifully in this eerie little nightmare.
A remake of a beloved if rarely shown BBC film, the big screen version is a spooky blast of a ghost story. It makes savvy use of old haunted house tropes, updating them quite successfully, and its patient pace and slow reveal leads to more of a wallop than you usually find in such a gothic tale. Glimpses, movements, shadows—all are filmed to keep your eyes darting around the screen, your neck craned for a better look. It’s classic haunted house direction and misdirection laced with more modern scares.
Ten points for Gryffindor!
2. The Others (2001)
Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.
What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.
Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.
With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.
1. The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.
This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a videotape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.
The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Buñuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!
From cherubic image of plump-cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created.
Wish Upon is, basically, a Twilight Zone episode – or a Simpson’s episode. Just toss in a bit of The Craft, add a dash of Final Destination, just a touch of Hellraiser, all topped off with the slightest hint of A Nightmare on Elm St.
Wait, how can you get away with such derivative pap? Get it a PG-13 rating – no one under 20 has ever seen any of those things.
What they’ll see here is a cautionary tale about succumbing to your high school angst.
Clare (Joey King) is unpopular in that Hollywood sense – meaning she’s artistic, adorable and quirky, but the Barbie doll lookalikes and their gay friend inexplicably hate her. Her two besties (admirably played by Shannon Purser and Sydney Park) love her, though. Plus, she has an admirer in that cute skateboarder, Ryan (Ki Hong Lee – man is he saddled with some bad dialog).
But her dad (Ryan Phillippe) is a total embarrassment – even if he did find her this cool Chinese wishing pot. (This, PS, is the whitest movie about Chinese demons ever made.)
Luckily, director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle) has King to rely on. She’s likeable, generally believable, and she offers a compelling deterioration, post-wishing. (Because wishing + puzzle boxes + horror movies = bad idea.)
Leonetti, working from Barbara Marshall’s script, seems to be suggesting that you should just accept who you are, and that pining for something as superficial as popularity and wealth will literally kill you and everyone you love.
It’s not bad advice. Might be a little over-the-top.
Wish Upon is a bland if competently made screamer for the not-ready-for-R set. It’s a John Hughes movie with more carnage. It’s a Taylor Swift song with a body count.
Aaron Eckhart is a conundrum, isn’t he? He’s talented enough to land any indie gem, granite-jawed and handsome enough to elevate it to mass market appeal. Think Thank You for Smoking.
And yet, for every Rabbit Hole there’s an I, Frankenstein; for every In the Company of Men, an Incarnate.
His latest – his fourth of this calendar year – sees Eckhart as the wheelchair-bound, unshaven, grimacing Dr. Seth Ember. He’s damaged, damn it!
Don’t call him an exorcist. He doesn’t exorcise demons; he evicts supernatural parasites. He has an ability. You see, when he was young, he realized, “When I was asleep I could go into the minds of the possessed.”
How did he figure this out? How often did he get drowsy in the proximity of a possessed person?
No matter – can’t you see he’s damaged?!
When a liaison to the Vatican (Catalina Sandino Moreno) – don’t even get Dr. Seth started on the church! – lures him to a case of a possessed 11-year-old, it isn’t to save the boy. Oh no.
No. It must have something to do with his damage. I’ll bet director Brad Peyton (that genius behind San Andreas) will soap-opera direct some weirdly stilted, flat and extreme-close-up-laden bit of ponderousness explaining the whole thing, but you will have lost the will to live before it’s all clarified.
There is one moment – not a scene, but a single moment – in this film where I believed Peyton might, maybe, possibly do something interesting.
Worst thing about Incarnate? It’s not the made-for-SyFy-CGI. Not the superficial storyline, not the flatly uninspired direction. (Honestly, if Peyton had directed from inside a coma the film couldn’t have looked or felt more lifeless.)
It’s not the tedious ensemble performances, not the wildly predictable series of twists. It’s Eckhart. It’s as if he’s angry at us that he took this dog.
We didn’t make you do it, Aaron. We only sat through this festering corpse of a movie because you were in it.
Back in 2005, Aussie filmmaker Greg McLean set the genre world ablaze with his merciless Outback horror Wolf Creek. An amazingly disturbing and well-crafted film, it seemed to mark a strong new presence in horror.
Nearly a dozen years later, McLean hasn’t been able to reproduce that success, although he tries once again with this PG-13 terror starring Kevin Bacon.
Bacon is Peter Taylor, and while Pete and his family were vacationing in the Grand Canyon, his autistic son picked up a handful of ancient Anasi demons and brought them home.
Back at the ranch, family members turn on each other while the dog next door barks incessantly, and a once promising director falls back on tired clichés and unconvincing FX. All this in an attempt to lead us to the conclusion that something supernatural is afoot.
Once the drama in the house sets in, The Darkness becomes a wearisome riff on Poltergeist.
Since it is now mandatory in all “is it evil or am I crazy” storylines, you can expect close-ups of computer screens as the concerned and beleaguered google ridiculous phrases and uncover incredible evidence. The mom (McLean favorite Radha Mitchell) googles “strange smells” and finds a link between autism and the spirit realm. I swear to God.
This is the filmmaker who once taught us that we do not want to play “head on a stick,” and he is now contenting himself with diluted, formulaic, toothless scares? WTF?
That’s not to say that you can’t make a good horror movie without an R-rating. The Ring was the scariest movie of 2002, PG-13 tag and all. Hell, the MPAA gave Jaws a PG and that film scared every person who saw it.
It can be done, and ten years ago I would have believed a talent like McLean would be the next filmmaker to succeed.