Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producer: Marc Bienstock, M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum
Stars: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh
Alone on a first time visit, a brother and sister begin suspecting that their grandparents’ odd behavior may be more than dementia.
15-year-old Becca and 13-year-old Tyler have never met their grandparents. Their slightly flighty mother Loretta left home at 19 and hasn’t been back to the family farm since. But when Nana and Pop Pop break a decade and a half silence with an out of the blue request to meet their grandchildren, Loretta agrees to let the kids make an unsupervised visit. Becca the budding Ken Burns sees an opportunity to edit her own documentary about the experience and off she goes with her brother to the snowy Pennsylvania countryside.
Things are immediately weird on day one of the six-day trip. The basement is off limits. The shed seems to be too, as that is where Pop Pop quietly disappears while in a catatonic trance. Once the sun goes down, the daytime strangeness of the elderly couple moves from intriguingly odd to fearsomely frightening. After dark is when scratches are heard in the house along with crawling feet scampering on the floor, and those noises turn out to be coming from grandma. Just what are Nana and Pop Pop up to, and what do they have planned for Becca and Tyler?
Every discussion about M. Night Shyamalan inevitably circles to the writer/director’s characteristic incorporation of plot twists. These devices are generally based on the audience assuming truth in a piece of information never expressly given, e.g. Bruce Willis’ mortal state or the time period in “The Village,” and then pulling out the rug with a “you just assumed that on your own” reveal. Ever since “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan’s movies immediately open as “what’s it going to be?” guessing games where ultimately, how popular the movie is perceived hinges on how well the reveal is received.
Reveal-reliant movies do not have to be only as “good” as the twist is, however. Even if a twist is a shoulder shrug instead of a senses shatterer, an overall entertainment experience can be redeemed by solid acting, directing, story, etc. The unfortunate issue for “The Visit” is that the movie is so minimalist by design that the curtain pull can’t help but be cooled to lukewarm after following a frustrating path of mild interest to get there.
“The Visit” is a family drama inside a dark thriller, although Shyamalan embraces a tongue-in-cheek tone in parts, with several sources categorizing the film as a horror-comedy. While some of the humor is indeed intentional, a debate can be had regarding how many of the over-the-top antics actually are. A second debate can then dig into just how successful the movie is at melding its two moods of horror and humor.
With a cast rich in stage experience, acting is perhaps unsurprisingly much more theatrical than it needs to be. Tyler in particular is so annoyingly over-animated as comic relief that he makes Carl of “The Walking Dead” look like a downright pleasing child character by comparison. One element of Tyler’s lame humor involves replacing curse words with female pop star names including Shakira and Katy Perry – a gag Steve Carell already did ten years earlier in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.”
Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan fare better as the grandparents, but the firm focus on Becca and Tyler’s POV keeps Nana and Pop Pop warming the bench too long when they are the less irritating characters. Nana and Pop Pop feature in memorable segments of tense suspense, but the “found footage” veneer piggybacks on that inclination to be cheeky for contrived results cutting off terror at the knees. Goofy scene setups and a first-person camera become excuses to fabricate fake scares like Nana putting her nose to the lens and snarling, “yahtzee!” It’s pure audio/visual manipulation making little story sense.
The narrative of “The Visit” is just as forcibly manufactured. Exactly two substantive things are learned about Tyler over the course of his arc. The first is that the boy has a Howie Mandel level of germophobia. The second involves a remembered anecdote about freezing in place during a crucial Pee Wee football play. Wouldn’t you know it, both of these bits are key to the climax in such a convenient manner that Chekhov would be inspired to put a hand to his mouth and mutter, “my word.”
Shyamalan tries explaining away cinematic cheats by apologizing beforehand, such as foreshadowing the purposefully overwrought music accompanying the finale by making it part of Becca’s intent for her documentary. That still says nothing about the well-timed thunderclaps accentuating said finale or the storm enabling a rain-soaked embrace in the end. This is a case where “found footage” hinders presentation because heavy-handedness is inflated by a frame of supposed realism when a traditional format would render such setups as acceptably reasonable.
Shyamalan excels at atmosphere, but the first-person format cages the mood in multiple instances. Some establishing shots of log piles and landscapes provide the right feel for the setting, yet the camera and story visibly ache to break free from their restrictions and go to more intriguing places.
“The Visit” is chiefly about Becca and Tyler, which makes it a flummoxing choice to end the film proper on a different character. More misplaced is the credits-accompanying epilogue, which trivializes the preceding ordeal for the sake of aiming at one last limp laugh. Imagine if after leaving the house in fright, “The Amityville Horror” concluded with the Lutz family giggling over skeeball at Chuck E. Cheese. The implication of everyone returning to nonchalant normalcy in the aftermath suggests there is no reason for there to be a lasting imprint of horror in the viewer’s head if there isn’t one in the characters’.
“The Visit” is precisely the movie that M. Night Shyamalan fans and detractors alike both expect and want it to be. Their enthusiasm sliding ever downward with each successive disappointment, stalwart Shyamalan supporters anxious for their phoenix to rise may view the scaled-back scope and “found footage” frame as a welcome return to simple storytelling form for the critically embattled filmmaker. That “better than the last few films” perspective also doubles as “told you so” headshaking for those “over it” and unimpressed by Shyamalan’s signature style of slow-burn suspense, as “The Visit” is one more Exhibit A log in either fire.
Review Score: 50