"This movie had really great jump scares" isn't much of a compliment: jump scares are, are they not, the resource of a filmmaker who cannot make something properly scary, the kind of scary that soaks into your bones like a tenacious autumnal dampness, cold and dead. They're a fast and easy way to get the adrenaline going, and thus give us the illusion of an actual emotional experience. Still: the new haunted technology film Come Play has some absolutely world-class jump scares, and a whole lot of them, too: what's really impressive about it, in fact, is that it basically only has one trick, with a couple of variations, and you start to recognise fairly early on how it's going to perform that trick, and yet in my case at least, it kept working every single time. Which takes its own special deft hand.

Take away the jump scares, though, and I think that you have taken away pretty much everything from Come Play. The film, which writer-director Jacob Chase has expanded from his 2017 proof-of-concept short Larry, is brought to us in part by Amblin Partners, which isn't exactly the same thing as Amblin Entertainment, though it's close enough that any feeling that this is kind of like a 1980s horror movie for especially mature tweens is absolutely not accidental. It certainly has a bit of a wannabe-Spielberg vibe to its story, which involves a couple in the middle of a divorce, and the sensitive little child in the middle of that, and its ghostly perversion of the banal safe spaces of a suburban home. The child is Oliver (Azhy Robertson), an autistic boy of elementary school age, whose father Marty (John Gallagher, Jr.) works bizarre hours at his job and thus is virtually never home, meaning that he's functionally living in a single-parent home under the care of his mom, Sarah (Gillian Jacobs). In order to communicate with the world, Oliver has an app on the tablet he carries with him at all times, and which is also loaded up with books and episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, the latter of which he uses as a security blanket whenever he gets overstimulated. I am unsure if this is a commendable bit of real-life detail or a loathsome bit of corporate synergy. Anyway, be ready for a lot of SpongeBob.

The main thing we need to worry about is one particular picture book, Misunderstood Monsters, which is the story of Larry, a spindly-looking creature that's very sad because everyone thinks he's weird and therefore worthy of hate, when he just wants to be loved for who he is. A potent message for a boy like Oliver, which is why he reads his way through the story right up to the point where the language starts to get awfully damn threatening, suggesting that Larry is in fact watching Oliver right this minute, and the more of the book Oliver completes, the closer he comes to opening a portal through which Larry will be able to tug him into a hellish netherworld. Oliver stops before that happens, but he's stirred up Larry enough that the rest of the movie - and we're in basically the opening scene still, co congratulations to Come Play on getting kicked off with all due haste - will consist of many different scenes of a hideous inhuman monster that can only be seen when you look through the tablet's camera skulking around and causing mischief, then terror, then actual physical harm.

So anyway, Jacob Chase has absolutely seen The Babadook, and he is not remotely concerned about pretending otherwise; if there hadn't been an unlimited number of tells throughout the movie, the scene in which a frazzled woman who never signed up for being the single mother of a special-needs child screams "why can't you be normal?" at her son would be the only proof we needed. And this is not something that benefits Come Play; The Babadook is one of the very best horror films of the 21st Century, and inviting direct comparison could only possible end in tears. Certainly, it encourages one to think especially hard about how these are both fundamentally character dramas about the relationship between a mother and a son, with the mother not always equipped to cope with the challenges of loving her child but dedicating everything she has to meet with those challenges anyway, and that this character drama is symbolically expressed through horror. And the thing is, Come Play isn't very good at it. None of the three leads is very well-written: Oliver feels exhaustively researched, like the longest part of the screenwriting process collecting details about how autism presents itself and what therapies and devices are used to help autistic children function normally in society, but this doesn't necessarily translate into him feeling like a fully-fledged character, more like the embodiment of a PSA. And Sarah and Marty aren't even that good. Marty is a non-entity, which would work if this was actually a story about a single mother, but he is in fact a constant presence in the story and the denouement depends extensively on us having forged any sort of relationship that simply hasn't taken place. Sarah is a little more defined, mostly because she has a more recognisable checklist of clichés behind her, and Jacobs is giving way more of a performance than the script cues her for, enough to make the character come across like a thinking, and more importantly feeling person. But it's not enough to set up the climax, a wholly unearned little pivot that comes from nowhere and isn't nearly as resonant as the film wants and needs it to be.

That Come Play is a wet noodle as a character drama certainly damages it, given that it wants so badly to be engaging and emotionally overpowering. The good news is that Chase amply makes up for it by proving to be an awfully good horror movie engineer. Everything about the film feels secondhand, not just the incredibly overt lifts from The Babadook; Come Play also copies some of that movie's specific editing rhythms in the way it occasionally jumps from screaming chaos right to the exhausted aftermath of that chaos. It uses exactly the same formula for creating jump scares that have been ritualised in the Conjuring universe movies, telling us right as the scene begins where the monster is going to show up, and then making us wait twice as long as we expect until it shows up; and Larry himself wouldn't look at all out of place in that universe, either.

Still, a lack of originality is only a sin if it leads to a feeling of tired familiarity and redundancy, and Chase does such a great job of recreating the elements from his various sources, from Spielberg on down, that Come Play never feels tired. Sometimes, it is in fact genuinely brilliant, as in a sequence involving a tracking shot through a tablet with a Face App-style program running, where the device starts getting twitchy trying to overlay a skull mask on a face that we can't see - almost certainly the best moment in the film, with a combination of a slow build-up, a nicely long "wait, did I just see..." beat, and a really fine moment of acting from Robertson, who lets a solemn "oh shit" reaction slowly tug at his face and shoulders. And even when it's more generic, by-the-books horror beats than that, it mostly nails them: Chase understands the timing of a jump scare on some deep, primordial level, giving us several moments in the film where we get to stare for a deeply uncomfortable amount of time at the thing we know is about to leap out, giving the whole film the wary feeling of a prey animal trying to move very cautiously away from a coiled-up snake.

Honestly, the movie left me pretty rattled for a really admirable portion of its 96-minute running time, and given that like 90% of the scares are built precisely the same way - a device turns on, Oliver sees nothing, the device insists that he should, then he sees something - it's downright miraculous that it keeps working for more than a few of those minutes. There's not nearly the amount of depth the film wants: it's basically just a carnival ride, bumping along at top speed through a well-stuffed haunted house, and it has no more intellectual depth than a carnival ride. But hey, sometimes you get a horror masterpiece, and sometimes you just get something that can wallop you with a good, persistent dose of crawly skin and goosebumps, and for me, Come Play managed to do that. Given the vast corpus of horror cinema that's just loud and obnoxious, I will happily take it.