Of course there’s a twist.
Of course there’s a twist. It’s M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director known for audience manipulation. Following yet another disappointment in 2013’s After Earth, he’s back in newly meta form with The Visit. Commenting on those very manipulations while offering a smattering of surprises, the film is a lower budget, performance-driven scare piece. Combing comedy, horror and family-based melodrama, it’s dorky, corny and utterly amusing.
Thanks to canny financing, which reportedly comes largely from Shyamalan’s own pocket, the director was able to return to the themes closest to his heart. The Visit opens on a clunky interview with Mom (Kathryn Hahn), a single woman and mother of two precocious kids. They’re preparing to leave for a trip to the grandparents, whom they have never met. Their mother ran away from home as a teenager and she hasn’t seen here parents since. Continuing in the creepy inter-generational tradition of a Goldilocks tale, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and Becca (Olivia DeJonge) quickly learn their “Nana” and “Pop Pop” are not the quaint old couple they pretend to be.
Becca is an aspiring documentarian with a preternaturally strong vocabulary. Tyler is the spunky younger brother with a gap between his teeth and a penchant for rapping. The first few days at their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania are mostly ordinary, except that Grandma suffers from “sundowning.” Described as sleepwalking for old people, it means the Nana becomes possessed by a demon after her 9:30 bedtime. When Tyler and Becca hear bumps in the night, they do what any right-minded adolescent would. They open the door, only to see Nana scratching at the walls. Did I mention she’s naked? The scene captures the tone of the overall film, which veers between comedy and horror. A well-trodden genre from Scream to The Cabin in the Woods, the humor serves to somehow qualify, making the gestures of a horror while also making fun of the genre at the same time.
The oddities escalate to Lynchian levels and the kids get increasingly spooked. Pop Pop attacks a stranger for no reason and Nana asks Becca to clean the oven, a process which entails going all the way inside. It’s a nice throwback to the witches of fairy tales past. The scares don’t always land, but Shyamalan’s obvious care for his work saves the film from mediocrity.
Performances by Deanna Dunagan (Nana) and Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop) are superb. McRobbie has Eastwood’s rasp and the intimidating gait of an ex-wrestler. The Tony award-winning Dunagan is an angel-faced spitfire. It’ll be a while before I forget those haunting blue eyes. The retired couple’s shining likability makes it hard to tell whether they’re psychokillers or just demented old folks.
The side plot about Becca and Tyler’s absent father is a schmaltzy mess. Thankfully, it’s the least prominent of the film’s storylines. The Visit is also Shyamalan’s first found footage feature. The whole film is supposed to be the product of Becca’s crafty filmmaking, but this conceit doesn’t check out. From start to finish, the film is clearly the work of Shyamalan, who remains drawn to themes of domestic rupture and the use of perceptual tricks. It’s true that found footage films require a suspension of disbelief, but it’s worth wondering if The Visit needed such an approach. At times, the entire project seems like little more than an aesthetic exercise and a strategy to cut costs.
A successful work of late summer entertainment is one that can elicit a reaction. Having both smiled and embarrassingly said “No” out loud to an inanimate screen, I must admit the film achieved what it was seeking to do. It is neither high art nor a nuanced allegory for our time, but not everything has to be. The Visit is not exactly a comeback for Shyamalan, and it has none of the sleek, creepiness of The Sixth Sense, but it more or less works. What a pleasant surprise.