M. Night Shyamalan Regains His Footing With the Effective Horror Excursion ‘The Visit’

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There’s an unspoken rule in multiplex horror fare of the last few decades: Don’t kill children. Filmmakers can terrorize and even rough up their young characters all they want, but it’s generally a safe bet that, as long as they’re not of partying age, a mainstream horror flick’s kiddies will live to enjoy their trauma for many years after the credits roll. Slap a PG-13 rating on it, and those whippersnappers are practically dipped in Kevlar.

It’s also implicitly understood that whoever’s holding the camera in a found-footage horror movie is documenting their own demise. So The Visit, the latest effort from beleaguered auteur M. Night Shyamalan, immediately establishes itself as a clever little film by putting two children in the role of would-be documentarians. It’s a subtle but effective way to fiddle with audience expectations long before things start going bump in the night.

The bumpees are Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a pair of precocious siblings who travel to the Pennsylvania countryside for a weeklong stay with their maternal grandparents, whom they’ve never met. Ostensibly, their journey is a way to give their single mom (Kathryn Hahn) a chance for a romantic getaway with her new boyfriend. Really, though, Becca hopes to engineer a reconciliation; their mom has been estranged from her parents since she eloped at 19, and Becca thinks she can somehow help heal old wounds. She’s also a budding filmmaker, so she decides to make a documentary about the experience. Yes, that means lots of shaky, handheld camera work.

The kids are greeted at the train station by sweet but batty Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), who usher them off to their remote farmhouse. By day, the older couple’s behavior is odd but benign. They vacillate between clarity and confusion and are, to say the least, unpredictable. But, hey, they’re old.

Once the sun goes down, though, the pleasant farmhouse takes on a sinister vibe. Nana has a habit of crawling around on all fours and scratching furiously at the walls, while Pop Pop seems to have an odd relationship with his shotgun.

It quickly becomes apparent that The Visit takes as many cues from “Hansel and Gretel” as Paranormal Activity. Like countless fairy tale protagonists, Becca and Tyler are plied with sweets, confined to a rural location, and given some very specific rules to observe. (Don’t go in the basement; don’t wander around the house after dark.)

It’s the kind of thing that could have been a disaster in Shyamalan’s self-serious hands—his last foray into the realm of fairy tale, Lady in the Water, was, to put it kindly, not well-received. But the writer-director found a smart workaround: The Visit is funny on purpose. The laughs occasionally defuse the scares, but they also give the film a fun, Goosebumps-ish charm, right up until its surprisingly brutal final act. Oxenbould, with his improv rapping and habit of substituting the names of female pop stars for obscenities, is the obvious onscreen clown, but it’s Dunagan, a Tony-winning stage actress, who really steals the show as the alternately daffy and deranged Nana.

So that’s one hurdle cleared. But what about the found-footage thing? I’m as tired of it as anyone, but Shyamalan makes it work. He never really relinquishes control of the film’s visuals to its DIY conceit; what looks like amateurish framing, for instance, often turns out to be shrewd misdirection. He finds inventive ways to get beyond some of the sub-genre’s limitations without violating the logic of the story; Becca actually has a good reason for going into that dark basement alone, and for taking her camera with her.

The less said about all that the better, though. You’ll probably guess the big twist very early, but it’s no less effective if you do—it’s a wonderfully old-fashioned reveal, reminiscent of the dark-and-stormy-night school of urban legends and campfire freak-outs, and it works even if you see it coming. But The Visit derives its suspense and its considerable creep factor from its smaller mysteries rather than its big one. It’s all about what’s around the corner, or lurking in the shadows, or waiting on the other side of a closed door. The movie tends to drag a bit when the sun is out, but once darkness falls and the weird noises start, it’s a fun, effective spookshow.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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