I see old people! M. Night Shyamalan does the twist in ‘The Visit’

September 11, 2015

The VisitFairly or not, when you go into an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you expect a twist. The director made his bones in Hollywood with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, which features one of the most cleverly obscured script flips in the history of scary movies.

Shyamalan’s plot-twist movies since then have usually been underwhelming (Signs and The Happening) and occasionally underrated (The Village). In his prior effort, the breathtakingly awful After Earth with Will Smith, Shyamalan pulled off his greatest trick by turning a $130 million budget into nothing at all.

The director’s new film, The Visit, is being marketed as a return to old-school Shyamalan territory. It’s a horror movie with a twist—and a pretty good one, too. The twist, that is. I didn’t see it coming, and I was looking pretty hard. The actual horror movie part of the endeavor … well, that’s another story.

Teenage Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her little brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are being shipped out to see their grandparents for a weeklong visit at an isolated country home. The kids’ mom (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for many years, ever since she eloped with the untoward young man who would later become Becca and Tyler’s dad.

Dad, unfortunately, recently abandoned the family for another woman, leaving mom and the kids traumatized. Tyler’s emotional wounds present as hysterical germophobia—this will become relevant later. Becca is processing her grief, meanwhile, by making a student documentary film about “the visit.”

It’s a terrible decision because it means we’re forced to watch this story through the truly exhausted found-footage narrative device that’s been haunting the horror genre for far too long. Significantly, the makers of the Paranormal Activity franchise are on board as producers.

The found-footage conceit nearly sinks the entire endeavor. The script contorts to accommodate the contrivance of Becca’s camera—always in just the right place at just the wrong time. To his credit, Shyamalan salvages several scenes with inventive and disturbing images. As a visual stylist, he is gifted at finding the things we’re scared of in commonplace scenarios.

Here, he digs deep into fears of old age, decrepitude and dementia. The spooky grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, are clearly hiding something. But like the increasingly terrified kids, we don’t know what it is. We get some clues, like when grandpa gets caught putting a shotgun in his mouth, or when Becca stumbles on grandma laughing hysterically at a blank wall.

“You have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in the cave,” grandma explains. Zoinks, Scoob!

When we discover what’s going on, the film accelerates nicely, and Shyamalan’s script reveals its hidden twists and depths. It takes some sleuthing, toward the end, to piece together events at that creepy old farmhouse. I like that Shyamalan trusts us enough to connect the dots on our own.

That found-footage decision, though—ugh, what a mistake. The Visit is mightily diminished by the cheap jump scares typical of the genre, and the perpetual distraction of wondering, “Wait, how did the camera get there?” Had Shyamalan chosen a more traditional filmmaking approach, this could have been a nice little horror story with a few good laughs, some real emotional resonance and a pretty great reveal.

But as it stands, it’s just a scary movie with a twist.

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