Warning: shaky found footage ala junior documentarian.
Two crafty kids attempt to heal rifts in their family: allowing their devoted but lonely single mother (Kathryn Hahn) to take a little romantic time for herself while meeting their grandparents for the first time and spending the week with them. After a train ride into small-town Pennsylvania, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are picked up by Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), every bit the perfect retiree couple they’d expected from all of their mom’s stories…but something is off. As we wait for the sinister twist we all know is coming, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan plays with our heads and emotions.
We’ve been burned before. The name Shyamalan had become synonymous with “lame twist” before finally just “lame.” The Visit, however, feels like a return to form of films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Like those movies (and pretty much all of M. Night’s filmography), there is a childlike sense of wonder and dread throughout the movie. In addition to an exemplary cast, the script is keenly aware of not only our horror expectations but our Shyamalan expectations, too, using it against us in the best possible way. By dropping banal hints and believable red herrings, the twist makes perfect sense and even backfills the thinking behind the false clues; it’s a horror film that isn’t a horror film that turns into a horror film.
It’s also a found footage film, meaning that you do get the occasional vomit-inducing shaky-cam moments. In another popular trick, it also features a character with a real reason to use a camera, additionally providing the excuse to have multi-camera setups and even tripods for steady shots. The real secret weapon, however, are the child actors doubling as convincing siblings; Ed Oxenbould nails the annoying-yet-charming little brother with delusions of rap stardom while Olivia DeJonge channels not only the look but intensity of both Natalie Portman and Chloe Grace Moretz. A special mention must go to Deanna Dunagan who was pretty much games for anything the script could throw at her, including things you’ll never unsee.
So does this invalidate all the M. Night misfires? All The Happenings, The Ladies in the Water, and The Last Airbenders? Shyamalan was under pressure to duplicate his initial successes and fast became a favorite target when new releases fell short. The truth, however, is that he seems most comfortable with one foot in the horror genre, unable to resist the pushing against the darkness and make people dread what the imagine comes next. While The Visit is a return to form, here’s hoping it’s also an informed and self-aware return that will continue in the near future.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)