What’s the twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s new “old people are scary” thriller? ... That it’s a decent film.
The Visit (2015)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Oh, M. Night Shyamalan. We, the American movie-viewing audience, don’t know what to do with you. Your breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, made you a superstar thanks to its unexpectedly twisty premise. Your next film, Unbreakable, is arguably your best work, due to its pioneering deconstruction of superhero mythology. After that, though, you became a punchline. (Literally, for viewers of “Robot Chicken.”) You insisted on shoehorning head-spinning twists and Hitchcock-esque cameos into stories that simply weren’t strong enough to hold up the weight (Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening). Even when you approached other people’s material (The Last Airbender, After Earth), the films sank in a morass of poor casting choices and half-baked sci-fi ideas. And yet, we all knew—deep down inside—you were a skilled filmmaker. Now, after an unmitigated string of bombs, you’ve decided to get back to your roots. To reboot your career by writing, producing and directing a small-scale indie shocker. And damned if The Visit isn’t a tasty little palate cleanser on the rancid cheese Danish (but it was sour cherry Danish all along—what a twist!) that is your Hollywood career.
The Visit finds Shyamalan visiting the low-budget exploitation realm in a way he’s never really tried. Turns out the guy has a taste and talent for ’70s-style grindhouse entertainment. The gloss and polish and misplaced stardom (Mark Wahlberg?) he’s ladled onto his previous projects have only distracted from their sporadically clever ideas. Here, he wipes the canvas clean, staring with a low budget, a single location and a no-name cast. Becca (Olivia DeJonge, The Sisterhood of Night) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) are our main characters, a couple of tweens being brought up by single mom Kathryn Hahn (Tomorrowland, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Transparent”). Since getting pregnant right out of high school, Mom hasn’t had a lot of time off. So, when she gets a call from her estranged parents, wanting to connect with the grandchildren they’ve never met, Mom figures maybe this is the break she’s looking for. Without hesitation, she loads the kids on a train, sends them off to Nana and Pop Pop’s rural Pennsylvania farm and heads out on a Caribbean cruise. (OK, so it’s not the most responsible of parenting choices, but bear with us on this.)
Nana (Tony Award-winning stage actress Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie from “Boardwalk Empire,” “Daredevil” and Brokeback Mountain) are tickled pink to see their young grandchildren for the first time since their daughter ran off with her skeevy high school boyfriend. Becca and Tyler are mostly curious, wanting to know what drove their mother to run away in the first place. Becca, in fact, is even filming a “documentary” about it. Here, we encounter our first “uh oh” sign. The Visit is shot found-footage-style, all of the imagery coming from Becca’s eternally handheld video camera. Shyamalan is awfully late climbing aboard the found footage train. As a genre/style it’s simply played out. But, low and behold, the concept works decently enough here. It keeps the budget lean and mean, forcing Shyamalan to concentrate on his story and his actors. And it adds an air of claustrophobic mystery to the proceedings that traditional “omniscient” filmmaking would not.
You see, soon after arriving for their week-long visit, Becca and Tyler start to realize something’s not quite right about Nana and Pop Pop. They’re ... weirder than you’d expect. Pop Pop eventually admits that Nana is suffering from some form of senility, but that’s not enough to explain all the naggingly odd things the kids are witnessing (an obsession with food, nightly freakouts and more nudity than most of us like to see from our senior citizens). Shyamalan, to his credit, doesn’t hide his source material. The Visit is obviously a winkingly funny update on the old Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” Just so we don’t miss it, Shyamalan even has Nana ask Becca to crawl inside the oven to “clean it.”
We spend a lot of the film waiting for the other shoe to drop, to explain what nastiness the grandparents have in store for these kids. And the film builds some tasty tension. It’s leavened with a good dose of humor, making this, ultimately, more of a horror-comedy. But it mostly works. When the shoe finally does drop, it’s not to deliver a mind-altering “twist,” but to give us a logical and creepy payoff to all we’ve anticipated.
Dunagan and McRobbie are fantastic, steering their characters though whiplash changes of temperament and appearance. DeJonge and Oxenbould are decent as well—although their characters are required to skirt some rather silly clichés. Becca is ridiculously precocious, talking about movies like a postgraduate film student and dropping phrases like “mise en scene” into ordinary conversation. Tyler is the opposite, a cartoonish, 13-year-old “playa” who raps about his preteen sexual prowess. It’s as grating as it sounds. In any other movie, these characters would be hard to swallow. But The Visit treats them as rather silly, and they fit in just fine given the “fairy tale” nature of it all.
Pulling off a family friendly, PG-13 horror film is quite a feat. All too commonly, they feel watered-down. But The Visit skirts the line with finesse. In retrospect, it’s all rather tame. But in the moment, it feels extremely dark and creepy. Adults will be appropriately spooked, and kids will emerge relatively trauma-free. It’s as if Goosebumps did an adaptation of The Last House on the Left. Kid-friendly grindhouse? Whodathunk? In the end The Visit is easily Shyamalan’s best effort in a decade. Not that there was a lot of competition. But the film is proof of concept that Shyamalan actually does know how make a decent movie. ... Now maybe we can talk about that Unbreakable sequel.