PLOT: When a single mom goes on vacation with her new boyfriend, she sends her two young children to visit their estranged grandparents. When they arrive however, the old folks are not what they seem.
REVIEW: 16 years it's been since onetime wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan left us all breathlessly mouth agape with his gut-socking SIXTH SENSE, yet as we know, each successive attempt to recapture such movie magic has eluded him for almost as long. And that's being kind. Now, M. Night takes us on THE VISIT, an absurdly humorous yet not so horrifying low-budget retreat that, despite featuring a far less effective and unneeded twist, is bound to be received as the once promising auteur's best effort in a dozen years or so. For whatever that's worth! Alas, the abundant entertainment value of the found-footage film is derived far more from the drolly likeable characters, the young boy in particular, and less from the diluted PG-13 attempt at true terror. More indicting though, once the major revelation unfolds in the second half, THE VISIT sort of tends to overstay its welcome.
Bookending the picture is a pair of direct address confessionals, done so by Mom (Kathryn Hahn) and filmed by her budding film student daughter Becca (Olivia DeJonge). As we open, Mom explains to Becca and younger son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) that, in the wake of a tragic event that took place 15 years prior, she hasn't seen or spoken to her parents since. So, as a perfect way to find some answers and seek forgiveness, Mom thinks it wise to send her two kids to visit their grandparents for five days while she enjoys a little R&R with her new boyfriend. Of course, Becca decides to document their entire stay, which gives way to a well conceived framing device for the found-footage template the film adheres to. Comic asides come fast and hilarious when Tyler, aka T Diamond Stylus, puts rap displays on tape that would make the cast of The White Rapper Show blush a bit. Kid's all swag. That is, until the grandfolks show up and exhibit ultra-erratic behavior.
Crazy old coots, these two are. As Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) pick up the two kids at a bus stop, we sense something instantly amiss, which is reinforced with their increasingly off-kilter mannerisms. We soon learn Nana has a form of dementia called Sundowning, which expresses itself every night at around 9:30 PM. The crazy bitch sleepwalks, projectile vomits, runs and crawls around the house, claws at the walls in the nude, that kind of thing. When asked about it, Pop Pop simply chalks it up to old age, and warns the kids from staying in their room all night after 9:30. Becca agrees, Tyler thinks it's more than odd. But with each passing day and terrifying night, Becca too comes around. Pop Pop, for example, has a shed full of shitty diapers he embarrassingly stows away, which makes for an oddly comic gross out display when Tyler unwittingly stumbles upon such disgust. When the two siblings finally decide to place a hidden camera in the house at night to record what Nana is really up to, the old bag's discovery of it sends her into a violent fit of schizoid rage. Will the kids make it out alive or muster the strength to overpower the pair of septuagenarian psychos?
I can't say much else about the plot of the film, save for there's a midway twist or revelation that I 100% do not condone. In fact, I think it's completely unnecessary and ends up feeling like a two-bit novelty rather than a legitimately earned "oh shit" moment of fright. THE SIXTH SENSE twist this is not, and sadly, I think this one actually detracts from the terror and makes for a more anodyne horror story. For me, the twist changes nothing, and only calls attention to past M. Night glories in a way that feels like a desperate attempt to recreate such. Not a fan. That said, this is the best movie Shyamalan has made in a good decade. Perhaps it was paring down the budget to a mere $5 million, getting the Blumhouse cosign, and concentrating on a small production with a miniscule cast and single location. Either way, we can tell M. Night is actually having fun here, which can't always be said for a number of recent studio tentpoles he's overseen. Perhaps he learned a valuable lesson from AFTER EARTH, that he should stick to writing his own scripts as a means of retaining an authorial voice.
I've read that Shyamalan did a draft of THE VISIT that was pure horror, one that was pure comedy, and the final one which fell somewhere in between. Horror comedies are always a tall ask, as tonal inconsistencies are inevitable. But here THE VISIT actually works far better as an oddly off-putting comedy than it does an authentically scary movie. I just wish he had pushed the weirdness even further. As it is, there's flashes of brilliance here that usually peter out in favor of a cheap laugh or PG-13 pullback. Had this one gone the hard R-route and utterly reveled in the luridly bizarre behavior, more memorable the overall experience just might be. In the end, the horror of the film devolves into a rote page out of the Blumhouse playbook - nighttime surveillance footage in a dark house with shaky flashlight cams, a descent into the basement, lazy jump scares and the like. I will say the most innocuous moments play the scariest, the best being a shot of the Nana laughing uncontrollably in a rocking chair, staring at an empty wall in a fugue state. That one got me. But again, even here, the bloodless scares are sapped by the comedic bent of the scene in a way that waters down the overall potency.
All in all however, I do think THE VISIT is worth taking. Thanks to some likeable characters who offer legitimate laughs early on, the film boasts a bizarre blend of horror and humor in a way that plays like an absurd sideshow oddity rather than an out-and-out fright fest. Which is fine I suppose. The real issue I have, aside from a few out of place heartfelt moments, is that the film doesn't push the horror far enough, particularly when a halfway point gimmick rears its ugly little head and renders the story less effective. But for a small $5 million found-footage film devoid of cheap VFX and hokey CGI, we can tell M. Night has gotten back to having fun with filmmaking. Here's hoping that's a permanent destination and not just a VISIT.