Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.
Stars: Kathryn Hahn, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Olivia DeJonge
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running Length: 94 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I remember seeing the preview for 2006’s Lady in the Water and when director M. Night Shyamalan’s name appeared the entire audience squealed with terrified delight. By that time, Shyamalan had become synonymous with twist endings and scary tales more interested in the human side of horror than blood and guts. After The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village Shyamalan was riding high but he’d wind up drowning with Lady in the Water, a self-serving bit of poppycock that felt more like an ego trip than a fully formed movie (Shyamalan wrote, directed, and had a significant role in the film…an ill-advised move).
It was all downhill from there as Shyamalan followed up Lady in the Water with his first R-rated flick, the hysterically terrible The Happening in 2008 featuring a too-serious Mark Wahlberg having a conversation with a plastic plant he thought was out to do him and his family harm (!). Things only got worse with 2010’s The Last Airbender before he hit rock bottom in 2013 with After Earth, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, two actors with possibly even bigger egos than Shyamalan. In the span of several years, Shyamalan’s name went from being the top selling point of a movie to a moniker that spelled box office poison.
I’m not sure what happened in the last few years but Shyamalan must have taken a long hard look at his career and made some changes for the better. He scored as the producer and occasional director of Fox’s eerie mystery show Wayward Pines and he’s back in top form with The Visit, a keep-the-lights-on at night thrill ride that could have gone very wrong but winds up hitting (almost) all the right notes.
I must admit that when I heard The Visit was a found footage film my heart sank a bit for Shyamalan…what was he doing tapping into the genre that has two feet, hips, and a chest already in the ground (see the wretched The Gallows if you don’t believe me)? While I still marvel at the fact that even in moments of high horror the person holding the camera manages not only to keep a hold of the device but also frame things like a recent film school grad, I have to say that Shyamalan makes good use of the found footage angle and finds a few new ways to exploit the trope.
Opening with Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) nervously sending her kids off to her estranged parents’ house for a week, Shyamalan offers just enough back story to push off from, choosing not to linger too much in history. We know that Hahn’s single-mom hasn’t seen her parents in 15 years and her two children have never met them. They’ve tracked her down and want to meet their grandchildren and, as a way to make-up for her behavior when she left home, she agrees.
That’s fine and dandy for her kids Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day) because they want their mom to spend time with her new boyfriend and also to help build a bridge between the grandparents they’ve never known and their mom who carries a heavy burden of guilt that she won’t speak about. It’s nice to report that DeJonge and Oxenbould are not only good child actors but that Shyamalan didn’t sketch them in the typical annoying kid kinda way…these are normal, decent kids with big hearts.
Arriving in a rural Pennsylvania town, they’re greeted by Nana (Deanna Dunagan, excellent) and Pop-Pop (character actor Peter McRobbie) and aside from some awkward first meeting jitters, all are soon settled in a quaint farmhouse near a frozen lake. Nana makes good meals and Pop-Pop seems interested in the kids and what their life has been like. It all goes swimmingly until…well, things get weird.
Over the next several days and nights red flags start to pop up that give the siblings cause for some concern. I have to be careful what I say because the last 2/3 of the movie is full of spoiler-heavy turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out what exactly is so off about the grandparents. The “big twist” that Shyamalan is so well-known for is fairly easy to predict, but even if I did have some notion of how it was all going to turn out Shyamalan throws in interesting curveballs that throw you off along the way.
And did I mention it’s scary? Like, legitimately scary. I’ll easily jump as much as the next person if there’s a jolt of loud music or something leaps out at you, but Shyamalan has cleverly crafted sequences with the kind of sustained scares rare to not only the found footage genre but the horror genre in general. More than once I had a rash of goosebumps emerge and felt my cheeks flush with an uneasiness that was exciting/scary/fun all at the same time. Amidst all the expected shrieks there’s one highly effective scare and another gross out moment that had our audience rightfully speechless.
If the film has some flaws, it’s in a few more light-hearted moments that can throw off the balance of the tone of the film. I can absolutely see why Shyamalan would want to toss in a few comedic moments to ease some of the tension (Oxenbould’s rapping skills are put to good use…maybe one too many times) but they are oddly placed in the middle of some fairly frightening moments, creating the feeling that it’s all one big joke to the director.
No matter, even these small moments don’t detract from a film that winds up being about more than just scaring you but manages to teach a small (if heavy-handed lesson) before the credits roll. If this is the new Shyamalan, then I welcome him back with open (and slightly petrified) arms.