The Visit (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on September 10, 2015

Director M. Night Shyamalan's screenplay for "The Visit" touches on some genuine horror and real ideas at the core of that horror, which only means that its wobbly execution and problematic focus constantly undercut it. Oddly enough, it isn't the oft-used stylistic decision to film everything from the point-of-view of a character's camera but the decision to make the film a horror outing with a distinctly comic bent. This is a movie that doesn't know if it wants to dissect its own subgenre or just to poke fun at the cliches. It ultimately settles for neither of them in a climax that seems to be entirely separate from what came before, featuring a lot of the old standbys of the horror genre in general (as well as the filmmaker's own, longstanding gimmick of a third-act twist). It is also, put simply, not very scary in form.

It's been 15 years since their mom (Kathryn Hahn) has seen her parents. The relationship ended badly after her own marriage fell apart and she was left to raise her two kids on her own. Becca (Olivia De Jonge), the older child, is now a budding filmmaker (and, it is heavily implied, cinematographer) whose predilection for larger words gives her a sense of self-confidence that is instantly likable. Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), the younger child, is now a YouTube sensation in his own eyes (His newest video has 347 hits). Becca's doing some sort of video project that morphs into one involving her desire to rebuild the burnt bridges between her mother and grandmother.

The opportunity arises out of contact made by Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) over the Internet. They work as volunteer counselors, an irony not lost upon Mom, who thinks it rich that a woman as willing to hold a grudge as her mother was could entertain the thought of helping others with their anger issues. The kids arrive safely at Nana and Pop Pop's, noticing very little at first that is strange about these people, other than the occasional, elderly slip-up. Nana is going a little senile, they gather, and Pop Pop is constantly forgetful of where he is and what he's doing. Of course, these are only superficial problems about Nana and Pop Pop; the real ones are a little more sinister than that.

What follows is an investigation by Becca and Tyler played as a lot funnier than it really is or should be. Shyamalan and cinematographer Maryse Alberti offer a lot of clever visual riffs on the found-footage gimmick while never over-stepping the usual traps in which other films find themselves. There are, at least, no instances where something seems impossible to capture the way it is captured, and a couple of jump-scares here and there succeed because of solid sleight-of-hand. But the concept central to the narrative--that Nana and Pop Pop are not who or what they seem is almost always undercut by a punchline replacing the follow-through on a scare tactic, which undermines the chilly nature of the setting and the chilling treatment of the two characters we're supposed to find unsettling.

The third act, then, doesn't have much going for it by the time we reach a duo of tough decisions on the kids' part (De Jonge and Oxenbould, at least, give convincing performances, while Hahn does far better work than her thankless role as the worried mom really warrants), and that includes a twist that feels more like an inevitability (It also doesn't help that McRobbie and Dunagan are playing their roles at such an oddball pitch at odds with even the established tone of the piece). It's the strongest film in Shyamalan's wilting career in nine years, but that says more about the director than it does about "The Visit." This is a conflicted movie on a formal level, although at least it has something to say in its final two scenes, an affecting monologue and montage that nevertheless state the film's thematic purpose and come too late after so much misplaced effort.

Film Information

Olivia De Jonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), Kathryn Hahn (Mom).

Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan.

Rated PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including terror, violence, nudity, brief language).

94 minutes.

Released on September 11, 2015.