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At The Picture Show
April 2013

Come Out and Play

Kids these days, amirite?

'Come Out and Play' takes a curiously straightforward approach to an unsettling horror scenario

Come Out and Play
Director: Makinov
Screenplay: Makinov, based on the novel El Juego de los Niños, by Juan José Plans
Starring: Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Vinessa Shaw and Daniel Giménez Cacho
Rated R / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

The more Come Out and Play reveals, the less interesting it gets, until finally it's abandoned all mystery in favor of a cheap form of suspense and even cheaper sense of irony. What begins as a genuinely chilling exercise in ambiguity and unspoken dread eventually devolves into a march toward the inevitable.

Admittedly, that transition is partially unavoidable. The movie can't sustain the suspense of its opening half-hour; otherwise it would be building toward nothing. Particularly in horror, that shift - from ambivalence to fear, from not knowing to knowing - is the essential moment. It's like when a performer in a balancing act shifts everything from his finger to his chin or nose; the trick lives or dies in that moment.

In a horror film like this, the moment occurs when the characters discover what it is they're up against - or, in some cases, discover that they're up against something at all. The hook in Come Out and Play is that the monster is not an otherworldly presence or or creature or impossibly strong assailant, but a pack of giggling, speechless children who've taken it upon themselves to savagely murder every adult in sight.

So you can see how the tonal shift might be a tricky one to pull off.

What struck me about the film's strong opening act is the way it creates an impression of eerie foreboding, even out of seemingly ordinary scenes. The main characters - an American couple vacationing in South America during Carnival - aren't aware of it, nor does anyone else seem to be. But throughout the introductory sequence, as Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) seeks out the proprietor of a rental boat, we can't shake the feeling that he's headed somewhere he shouldn't be.

His intentions are innocuous enough; he and his pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) just want to get away from the mainland for a couple of days, so they rent the boat and ride over to Punta Hueca, a remote island nearby.

Here the sense of strangeness begins to take root, as Francis and Beth arrive only to discover the island town is almost completely abandoned, hardly a person in sight. There's no cashier at the general store, no one tending the local bar, no one manning the concierge's desk at any of the hotels. The only hint of civilization they come across are the occasional wandering children that stroll by, none of whom ever says a word.

Only when Francis witnesses a young girl beating an old man to death with his own cane does an atmosphere of full-on panic firmly take hold.

Though there's a brief hint at a loosely supernatural/metaphysical element to the children's behavior, writer/director Makinov (who's also credited for the cinematography, editing and sound design) by and large tries to avoid explaining anything or even contextualizing it in any literal fashion. The strategy works (up to a point), as the general inexplicability of what is taking place adds a layer of surreal mystery - a sense enhanced by the effective employment of subjective camerawork.

The problem, I think, is not following that impulse further. Given that Beth is very, very pregnant, one can't help but see, in the film's premise, a not-so-subtle commentary on the fears of children and parenthood. But unlike the abstractness of Eraserhead or the black comedy of We Need to Talk About Kevin or the body horror of various fetal thrillers, Come Out and Play plays it straight, reducing its premise to a series of utterly conventional scenarios in which people do inexplicably stupid things when facing off against, or on the run from, an unspeakable terror.

That the adults in the film face a moral dilemma of whether to attack the children - however evil those children might be - is a key obstacle, but one that makes less sense the longer things move along.

Come Out is an adaptation of Juan José Plans' novel El Juego de los Niño (which I haven't read) and unofficial remake of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's 1976 grindhouse flick Who Can Kill a Child? (which I haven't seen). I don't know in what direction either of those works took the concept, but I would at least hope for a more interesting reading of the material than what we get here. Come Out and Play's credits include a title card that dedicates the film to "the martyrs of Stalingrad" - which is either an extremely pompous gesture or an extremely tongue-in-cheek one. Judging by the self-seriousness of most of the film, I tend to lean toward the former.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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