M. Night Shyamalan is up to his old tricks, this time in a good way, with his latest writing/directing effort, The Visit. In it, he puts his own spin on the Paranormal Activity-style horror thriller that’s found some success at the box office of late, delivering a film with dramatic and thematic depth (for this type of film, anyway) that also actually provides some genuine scares and a twist you most likely won’t see coming.
The Visit focuses on two siblings, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who at the film’s outset are sent off by train to rural Pennsylvania by their recently-divorced mom (Kathryn Hahn) to meet their maternal grandparents for the first time in their lives. An aspiring film maker, Becca endeavors to record the entire trip in order to create a documentary, and in the course of doing so learn more about why her mom remains estranged from her parents, as well as get to know these relatives that until now have only been the subjects of secondhand stories.
Upon their arrival, Becca and Tyler are warmly greeted by their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Poppop (Peter McRobbie), who seem eager to spoil their newly-met grandchildren with a fun week of home cooking and sight-seeing around their mom’s old home town. But before a single day has gone by, the kids begin to notice curiosities in what they see on the old homestead, in particular Poppop going in and out of a windowless shed behind the house at odd hours, and Nana displaying very strange behavior around the house once the sun has gone down.
Naturally, the kids ask questions about what they see, both to their mom via video conversations on Becca’s laptop computer, and to Nana and Poppop themselves, and the answers all basically boil down to, “Well, kids, your grandparents are old. Old people act strangely sometimes. Try not to judge.”
But as the week goes by, the odd occurrences continue and grow stranger, as well as more dangerous. After the kids set up one of their cameras to record what happens in the living room overnight, what they see convinces them not only that something else is afoot in the house, but also that whatever the ‘something else’ is might result in their visit being a whole lot longer than they want it to be.
The marketing for The Visit would have you believe that the film represents Shyamalan’s return to his roots, to suspense writing and film making, which became his claim to fame all those years ago with his work on 1999’s The Sixth Sense. In truth, while his films since that mega hit have run the gamut of genres from superhero (Unbreakable) to sci-fi (Signs) to fairy tale (Lady in the Water), there’s been a more or less consistent formula involving a relatively languid pace to storytelling, attention to characterization and internal conflict, and the slow build of tension and suspense as a mystery is unraveled. It’s in the payoff to the elaborate mysteries in these films that Shyamalan has tended to lose his audiences time and again since arguably Unbreakable, as the “truths” to each of the enigmas prove to be so outlandish and/or preposterous that they make people regret the time spent sitting through the setup.
Without giving anything away, it’s important to note that The Visit is a bit of a departure from the norm in this regard. Yes, there’s a twist, but as stated in the opening, if you allow yourself to be drawn into the film’s conceits, you most likely won’t the twist coming. Moreover, once you realize what’s happening, it’s much more likely that your response will be something along the lines of “Oh, $#*t!” rather than “Oh, please!” It’s a solid, well-executed payoff, one that opens the door for the possibility of greater tension and surprises looming in the film’s final act.
The Visit also provides evidence yet again of Shyamalan’s talent for bringing out strong performances from younger actors. With The Sixth Sense, he made a star of Haley Joel Osment, in Signs he got critically acclaimed performances from Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, and now here his writing and direction provide a showcase for two very talented performers, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. By making his central figures both children of divorce, Shyamalan provides ample opportunities for both DeJonge and Oxenbould to add layers of depth to their performances, to bring to life different ways in which kids deal with loss and anger, as opposed to adults.
DeJonge, who at times is a ringer for a young Kirsten Dunst, delivers a memorable turn as Becca the committed film maker and seeker of truth, who herself has found ways to hide from the truth of her own feelings regarding how her family has been torn apart. In contrast, Oxenbould provides some much-needed lightness and comic relief to the proceedings as 12-year-old Tyler the aspiring hip-hop artist and ladies’ man — yes, you read that correctly — whose sense of humor in regards to the world and events surrounding him is, in itself, one of a number of psychological defense mechanisms. It’s these two thoughtful, compelling performances, complemented by the truly unnerving work delivered by actors Dunagan and McRobbie as Nana and Poppop, respectively, that help lift The Visit from the less-than-satisfying level of more recent Shyamalan films.
All that said, if you’re not a fan of the “found footage” style of film making that characterizes films like Paranormal Activity, and how that style utilizes the limited point of view of a single camera to deliver scares and shocks when something unexpected suddenly enters the frame, you’re most likely not going to be overly impressed with The Visit as a “scary movie.” In his own way, Shyamalan has played around with these techniques in film making before, and as such if you’ve seen his work before, or even other films of this type before, you’re most likely going to know when, if not in what form, a scare is going to come, and you can gird yourself accordingly.
But safe to say The Visit is executed competently enough that even the most seasoned suspense thriller enthusiast will find themselves startled, if not jumping out of their seat, at least once or twice. It’s certainly not Shyamalan’s best, nor is it the scariest thing you’ve seen at the movies this past year, but it’s far from the worst.
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language.