Listen here, internet. Before we start declaring “M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN IS BACK!” with furious aggression, let’s be honest. Shyamalan may be directing good movies again, but he hasn’t returned to his once genius form. I’m not suggesting that he didn’t make The Visit great; there are no killer trees, water ladies, or Jaden ‘effing Smiths in sight, but is The Visit really The Sixth Sense good? Unbreakable good?
Yet, with that said, I tip my hat towards M. Night because The Visit is equal parts creepy family fun and spooky rural nightmare. In other words, a successfully thrilling night at the movies! Again, the phrase “return to form” may be a little much when praising Shyamalan’s latest twisted accomplishment, but there’s still a victory to be celebrated here, and it smells just like Nana’s home cooking.
Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould star as two siblings who are meeting their grandparents for the first time. Their mother, played by Kathryn Hahn, had been estranged from her parents since leaving home with her then-boyfriend, but he eventually bails on his family. Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) watched their single mother suffer through enough to know she needs a break, so they push for a visit to their grandparents’ house to give their mom a week of freedom (and a vacation cruise).
So off to meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) the children go, with Becca’s cameras in tow so she can document the entire weekend. Immediately upon their arrival, however, something seems amiss. Nana and Pop Pop appear spacey and unpredictable, which everyone just assumes is because they’re old. You know, senile, kooky old farts who bake too much, laugh at the wall, dart around the house on all fours after 9:30PM…
As you can assume from Becca’s Michael Moore impression, The Visit‘s documentary aspect marks Shyamalan’s first foray into the found footage realm. Both Becca and Tyler are armed with personal cameras, which they use to capture all the strange habits of their grandparents – most of which can be rationalized by old age. Pop Pop frequently has accidents, so he hides his dirty diapers in the tool shed where no one can find them, and Nana gets ill at night because of her weakened immune system (so we’re told). Sounds plausible, right?
That’s half the fun of Shyamalan’s latest script; he doesn’t get too zany with unnecessary loopholes (MURDEROUS FOLIAGE), and plays in a universe of grounded hauntings that all have some sort of explanation. Finding the truth becomes a fun, nerve-wracking game, built through steadily ramping tension and a few good-old-fashioned chills.
The tremendous age gap between both parties makes for a light-hearted tussle of sorts, and while The Visit lacks darkness, Shyamalan hits a desired tone akin to jovial kiddie thrillers like Monster Squad (something more mischievous than horrific). Nana and Pop Pop are the grandparents you’d always dream of, baking too many biscuits and playing Yahtzee, but their slow descent into utter madness makes for perfect moments of blended deviousness and child endangerment.
Give Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie some credit, because they prove that these oldies still have a tremendous pep in their step, along with a few flashes of skin that Dunagan proudly teases us with. These aren’t two silver foxes slowed down by walkers – Dunagan and McRobbie are lovable antagonists who manipulate sweet, homely activities for their own evil game.
Just as important are DeJonge and Oxenbould, who are much more than our eyes. Becca is a more contrived, generic pre-teen girl with a big vocabulary, but DeJonge is never unwatchable. Her innocence and jaded view of her father hits the right sympathetic notes, while her character’s brother remains cautiously courageous and enjoyably goofy. Tyler is an aspiring rapper and a germaphobe, and I promise that Shyamalan utilizes both quirky traits for their full rhythmic, disgusting, unique potential. But most importantly, DeJonge and Oxenbould play brother and sister with chemistry and heart, which makes for an easy, flowing watch.
The Visit is a surprise not because Shyamalan shoots and scores, but because the whole crazy idea works. It’s a bit like a modern-day fairy tale, where innocent children skip through the woods to grandma’s house, only to find a wolf instead. The scenario is a parental nightmare, yet never loses itself in the utterly ludicrous setup of child versus granny. Scares are cooked up, laughs are shared, tremendous amounts of baked goods are eaten, and Shyamalan delivers an “OH SHIT” moment sure to cause a momentary spell of fear-consumed paralysis. The dramatic exposition might be a little overly-sappy at times, but everything comes together nicely, like a passionately knitted sweater from Hell.
He’s not back just yet, but dammit, he’s getting there!
The Visit warms your soul like a mug of hot chocolate from Grandma, but gleefully shocks and scares with the most subtle of household horrors.