THE VISIT (4 out of 10) Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie; Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language; 94 minutes; In semi-wide release September 11, 2015.
It’s been well over a decade since M. Night Shyamalan has made a good movie. “Unbreakable” still stands as his best, and while no one was really expecting that level of quality from “The Visit”, there was some hope since he was going back to his roots with a suspense/horror film. Sadly, it’s just more of the same from a director who ran out of ideas long ago.
Two teenagers, Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents. Their mom left home at an early age, and after being estranged for 15 years is contacted by her parents in a hope to rekindle their relationship. Mom is heading out on a vacation with her new boyfriend, so it seems like the perfect opportunity for the kids to spend some time bonding and getting to know their grandparents. Film-lover Rebecca wants to record the whole event to make a documentary for their mother, while her precocious and at times annoying younger brother is all about acting tough and being a rapper to “land bitches.” The two are met by Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) who are kindly but obviously haven’t been around children in a long while and are somewhat clumsy in their attempts to show affection. Things go well in the beginning, but the first night, the kids hear weird noises outside their room and wander out to discover Nana vomiting all over the place as she wanders aimlessly throughout the house. The second night, they find her crawling around naked and scratching at walls. Worried, they confront Pop Pop about her strange behavior, and he assures them that she is fine, but that she suffers from “sundowning” – a psychological affliction that makes her do odd things whenever night falls. Becca takes this at face value, but Tyler figures something else is up since Pop Pop has also been acting off and hiding things outside in the woodshed. The week goes on, and as Nana and Pop Pop’s behavior becomes more erratic and violent, Becca and Tyler realize their lives are at danger and must escape from these people who aren’t who they seem to be.
The premise is at least interesting, which is why it’s so much more annoying that the execution is so lacking. There’s no reason Shyamalan should have used the found-footage approach to film this movie. If there’s anything he’s done well, its creating moody environments, but using this technique destroys the atmosphere so desperately needed. Using a first-person perspective can help with jumps, but since he doesn’t understand how to effectively use it, he telegraphs every scare, and they fall flat. It’s not quite as bad as being surprised by something popping up in a mirror but almost.
The same is true for the requisite twist. Following the trail of breadcrumbs and trying to figure out what is going to happen is one of the most enjoyable parts of any movie. Unfortunately, the twist is foreshadowed so strongly throughout the first 60 minutes that the reveal was met with a collective sigh instead of a gasp of intrigue. It would have been effective and creepy if everyone hadn’t already figured it out shortly into the film.
“The Visit” does have an underlying message just as most horror movies do. In fact, the genre in general always has allegories to real life, and what’s presented here is something everyone can take to heart. Why, then, must it literally be explained in the last scene? Audiences aren’t stupid, so why act as if they aren’t smart enough to figure it out for themselves? Instead of being poignant, it comes across as schmaltzy and makes the whole thing feel like a bad and sappy after school special.
At least Deanna Dunagan knew what she was doing and turns in a wonderful performance as Nana. She embodies being both a kindly grandmother and raging lunatic, and to watch her transform from one to the other – whether in a split second or a slow burn over a few scenes – was one of the few enjoyable parts.
The last act also ratchets up the tension nicely, but it’s not worth sitting through two thirds of a movie before it finally starts to get interesting.
Considering this is a genre Shyamalan is well versed in, “The Visit” should have been a rousing success. However, he couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be funny, scary or something in between, and that lack of focus dooms it. While nowhere close to the worst thing in theaters right now, it reeks of mediocrity and wasted opportunity. Which is a shame because this could have been a fine return to form for him. Instead, it’s just another stain on what was once a promising and exciting resume.