The Visit

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Olivia DeJonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), Kathryn Hahn (Mom), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Stacey), Samuel Stricklen (Conductor), Patch Darragh (Dr. Sam), Jorge Cordova (Miguel), Steve Annan (Man on the Street), Benjamin Kanes (Dad)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2015
Country: U.S.The Visit
The VisitObligatory spoiler warning: This review contains some potential spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, read at your own risk.

After two disappointing gun-for-hire projects, the live-action anime adaptation The Last Airbender (2010) and the Will Smith sci-fi vanity project After Earth (2013), M. Night Shyamalan returns to the terrain that first made him internationally famous—horror—with The Visit. It’s a clever, engaging thriller about two kids who quickly realize that not everything is right with their estranged grandparents while spending a week with them in the country. Shyamalan, whom Newsweek dubbed “The Next Spielberg” back in 2002, has been something of a punchline in recent years, his cinematic slide arguably beginning with Lady in the Water (2006), a badly miscalculated fantasy misfire that many saw as the culmination of an ego that simply didn’t know when to quit. His subsequent film, The Happening (2008), was also roundly mocked, although I found it to be quite effective and eerily menacing, something I would also say about Devil (2010), the first film in an abandoned horror series that he cowrote.

Like Devil, which was essentially a modern riff on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the core of The Visit is rooted in a well-worn cultural narrative, in this case the old Grand Guignol tale of the visitor to the insane asylum who gradually comes to realize that the patients have taken over the asylum and are posing as doctors and nurses (there are, of course, bits and pieces of other familiar narratives in there, as well, particularly fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” although here Grandma and the Wolf and the Old Witch are all one in the same). It’s a tireless story because it digs so directly and deeply into our darkest fears that what we know and trust is not what it seems. The scenario suggests, at its core, that we can’t rely on our own senses and that danger—real, horrible danger—lurks under the guise of normality and officialdom.

Despite being a return to familiar Shyamalan territory, The Visit marks a major stylistic departure in that, rather than being shot in the elegant, moody long takes and careful compositions that have characterized his best work (particularly 1999’s The Sixth Sense), it takes the form of the found-footage film, a trope that would seem to have been entirely exhausted at this point, what with the dozens and dozens of post-Blair Witch horror flicks that have sought to save a few bucks by filming on the cheap and then passing it off as narratively justified. Shyamalan doesn’t do anything revolutionary here, but he works the trope about as well as it can be worked, often finding inventive and crafty ways to create unnerving compositions that look accidental, rather than planned.

The justification for the presence of cameras is that one of the two protagonists, a teenage girl named Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is movie-obsessed and is making a documentary about her visit to her grandparents’ house as a school project (her cinematic knowledge allows her to comment in meta-fashion on the very techniques Shyamalan is using here and in other films; to wit, “We’re looking for visual tension,” she says at one point, “things that force us to imagine what’s going on beyond the frame). She and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents before because the grandparents have been estranged from their mother (Kathryn Hahn) for 15 years. The mother left home after become pregnant under scandalous circumstances, and the familial rift was so bad that she hasn’t spoken to them in a decade and a half and her two children have never met them. That all changes when Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) track them down on the Internet and request a week with the grandchildren they’ve never met.

Becca and Tyler are both excited about the trip, which takes them out of their comfortable city confines and into the rural countryside where neighbors are beyond sight and cell phones don’t get signals (natch). Their initial meeting with their grandparents goes well, and the first day of the trip (each of which is marked with a title card with big red letters) is a fun time spent seeing all the things and places their mom talked about. But then, things start to get ... weird. I don’t want to spoil too much, but suffice it say that the setting sun is not a good omen, as Nana and Pop Pop morph from odd, but kindly old folks into something menacing. Becca and Tyler are told to stay in their rooms after bedtime at 9:30, and the scratching sounds and guttural noises coming from beyond their bedroom is testament to the potential dangers that lurk outside. As the week wears on, even the daylight hours betray strangeness, with Pop Pop’s hidden activities inside an old shed and Nana’s insistence that Becca help her clean the oven by climbing all the way inside suggesting that the grandparents are not all right. There is talk of “sundowning,” a psychological phenomenon among the elderly that leads to confusion and paranoia, so maybe the weirdness is nothing more than the early stages of dementia exaggerated in the minds og kids who don’t have any experience with old people. But, we know better.

At its best, The Visit creates a sense of deep unease, which is heightened by the solid performances by the four main actors. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould make for credible kids who are clearly hurting from their family situation (their father left several years ago to be with a younger woman, a scenario that left similarly deep psychic wounds on adolescent Elliott in Spielberg’s E.T.) and are looking to make amends for both themselves and their mother. Becca is intelligent, steady and sure, but also a bit too good at hiding her pain; the scene where Tyler breaks façade by questioning her refusal to look in mirrors is genuinely moving. Tyler, on the other hand, is something of a crack-up with his gangster rap aspirations, although his psychological wounds reveal themselves, as well, via his obsession with germs. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, on the other hand, walk a fine tightrope between gentle and kind and utterly terrifying. Their back and forth is the most unnerving aspect of the film, as Shyamalan toys with our fundamental unease with aging and the mental and physical breakdowns that come with it. Are they just old people with quirks, or are they something else entirely?

The twist is waiting, and Shyamalan delivers it with a crackling kind of “The phone call is coming from inside the house” giddiness. The fact that The Visit contains almost as much humor as horror is testament to Shyamalan’s willingness to play with the conventions, and even though he doesn’t do anything revolutionary, it feels like a solid step back to being the masterful heir apparent to Hitchcock and Spielberg that he promised to be more than a decade ago.

Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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