Review: The Visit
PLOT: While their mother goes on a much-needed vacation, two siblings spend a week with their estranged grandparents. The children quickly learn these old folks have habits that range from odd to worrisome to downright deadly.
REVIEW: What JAWS did for beaches and PSYCHO did for showers, M. Night Shyamalan's THE VISIT may very well do for grandparents. This weird concoction, a sly mix of horror and comedy, will be proof to some that Shyamalan has regained his groove after years of making startlingly bad films. I might not go so far as to declare him back among the elite, but THE VISIT is good enough to convince me the writer-director has located a hitherto untapped part of himself that could signal an intriguing new direction for him. THE VISIT is intentionally funny, for starters - a first for Night, I think - but it's also kind of demented in a mischievous way. The director known for overbearing schmaltz and pretentiousness in the B-movie field has come very close to embracing being a B-movie director, which can only mean good things. It's no instant-classic, but THE VISIT is a helluva good time.
Also seeing a bit of a resurgence: the "found footage" format, which Shyamalan uses to potent effect here. Like all of you, I thought I couldn't take one more of these things, but THE VISIT makes strong use of the POV aesthetic, and because Shyamalan has a good director's eye (crafting a strong visual has never been his issue), the film still enjoys a cinematic atmosphere, as opposed to feeling like it was made by cheap wannabes. What's more, you won't be nauseous by the end of it. Well, you might, but for different reasons.
Shyamalan's story is alluringly simple: a harried single Mom (Kathryn Hahn), still reeling her husband's abrupt departure years earlier, has decided to take a vacation with a new boyfriend, hence she's sending her children to stay with her parents. The enterprise serves another purpose, however: Mom (no proper name given) is estranged from her folks, and she's hoping shipping her kids to them will open up the door to reconciliation. For their part, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) understand their slightly-loopy mom needs the getaway, so they're cooperative with the trip. Becca, in particular, sees the opportunity to mend that frayed relationship, and, burgeoning filmmaker that she is, intends on documenting the entire trip to her grandparents' house. Tyler, after some coaxing, agrees to be the B-camera operator.
Initially, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) come across as sweet, if slightly eccentric, old folks, and the visit's several drawbacks (no WiFi, bedtime by 9:30 p.m.) don't seem so bad. But soon enough, Becca and Tyler notice odd quirks that go beyond simple eccentricities: Nana has a proclivity for running around like a lunatic at night; Pop Pop attacks a stranger in the street and fears he's being watched; the two seem to think there's some haunting significance to the dilapidated well out back. There's also the rule about not going into the basement, ever. Becca and Tyler are incredibly patient with the bizarre behavior at first, but when they spot Nana attempting to break into their room armed with a knife, that counts as the final straw. Of course, it may already be too late.
While there's an undeniable tension to the events, those looking for boffo shocks will be a little disappointed; THE VISIT is more concerned with insidious ideas and eerie sights than outright terror. And that's just fine: If THE VISIT were played completely straight, it might be scarier but it wouldn't be as fun. Shyamalan employs some very dark humor here, and most of the film's jolts come directly before or after a good laugh is had. After THE HAPPENING proved to be maybe the funniest unintentional comedy of all time, THE VISIT proves Shyamalan can actually land a joke, and a twisted one at that. This isn't to say horror fans will necessarily walk away unsatisfied, as there are a handful of jump-scares guaranteed to give your heart a workout; my audience was screaming with the best of them. However, the biggest "jump" the movie gets is from a moment so unexpectedly gross I still can't believe it's in there. (You'll know the one, it happens in the kitchen.)
Aside from his newfound appreciation for off-kilter humor, Shyamalan and THE VISIT get leverage from a top-notch cast. Shyamalan's always enjoyed a talent for provoking strong performances out of his child actors, and THE VISIT continues that trend. DeJonge and Oxenbould are two movie kids that are actually enjoyable to watch; the former playing the older, wiser sibling like she's 15 going on 35, while the latter is a crowd-pleasing smartass with a knack for free-styling. Both are given moments to flex their dramatic muscles as well. Meanwhile, Dunagan is outstanding; this is a no-holds-barred performance that fluctuates between being sensitive and gentle to maniacal and frightening. The ultimate scary grandma, Dunagan now officially is. McRobbie, a veteran character actor, gives a slightly reeled-in performance when compared to Dunagan, but it's no less brimming with ominous charm. It takes until the film's final reel for him to really shine.
After all this praise, I still have to rain on the parade a little and admit Shyamalan hasn't completely abandoned his worst instincts. The film's conclusion is unnecessarily sappy, and it deflates some of the entertainment that came before it. It's like Shyamalan found he didn't want to commit to making just a horror movie, so he felt the need to back away from the outlandish attitude THE VISIT had previously sported and leave us on a kinder, gentler note. He achieves the opposite effect; a movie like THE VISIT doesn't require a feel-good coda. He may have recently embraced a darker, quirkier side of himself - and that's still news to be celebrated - but Shyamalan has some work to do when it comes to making us forget his more unappealing tendencies.
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