By Chaz Lipp
No hate for the oft-maligned writer-director M. Night Shyamalan will be found here. After years of diminishing returns, Shyamalan is back with a scary, funny horror film that delivers much needed shot in the arm to the ‘found footage’ genre. The premise couldn’t be simpler. The Visit finds brother and sister Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) Jamison staying for a week with their maternal grandparents. Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie) seem initially kind, albeit understandably awkward, as they meet their grandkids for the very first time. A serious falling out with their daughter Paula (Kathryn Hahn) has left them estranged from the family for decades, but they want to spend some time with Rebecca and Tyler while they still can.
Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker intent on filming everything that transpires. Remember when many critics and horror fans were jumping for joy over Bobcat Goldthwait’s supposed “re-invigorating” of the ‘found footage’ genre, Willow Creek? That was a barely-watchable series of non-events made all the more intolerable due to the fact that the main characters barely had anything of interest to say. It’s actually a fairly common problem in these types of films – we’re dying for the creepy stuff to start happening so it’ll wipe out all the characters’ banal, pseudo-realistic chatter. Shyamalan actually manages to give his young protagonists real, lived-in personalities. The teen siblings’ shared trauma involves the departure of their father following their parents’ messy divorce. Mom is a bit of a space case, partying away on a cruise with her boyfriend and occasionally checking in with the kids via Skype.
The semi-pro look of the cinematography can be attributed to Rebecca’s serious filmmaking aspirations (whenever she hands over the camera to Tyler, the shots are not nearly as well composed). Tyler is a wannabe rapper and his often rhyme-challenged verses are endearingly funny. Each of them is hiding the pain caused by their absentee father in different ways. Rebecca has a real, identifiable goal with her documentary: she wants to uncover the mystery of what caused the on-going falling out between her mother and the grandparents. Maybe it’ll help her and Tyler come to terms with their own broken hearts. But the increasingly weird behavior of said grandparents very quickly begins to take center stage.
As Grandma and Grandpa Jamison, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are so palpably scary, the two deserve some kind of special award recognition. Actors receive Oscar nominations all the time for what are essentially mechanical performances – the kind that are based almost entirely on behavioral tics or the mimicking of various mental and/or physical conditions. What Dunagan and McRobbie tap into is the stuff of nightmares. Sure, Shyamalan delivers lots of jump scares. But the performances he coaxes from these two senior actors is, at times, literally chill-inducing. It wouldn’t be fair to give away specifics, but suffice it to say that what goes on in the Jamison household after dark feels incredibly real and is all the more frightening for it. As the youngsters, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are excellent as well. They’re playing the far less showy roles, but Shyamalan has luckily given them enough to sink their teeth into in order to craft memorable characters.
Speaking of not giving anything away, The Visit does deliver some plot twists along the lines of what we’ve come to expect from M. Night Shyamalan. Be sure to avoid spoilers. If the trailer was enough to hook you (“Would you mind climbing inside the oven to clean it?” asks Grandma Jamison, quite innocently), don’t look for anything more before checking out the full movie. Aside from a few forced moments near the very end that ring false, The Visit delivers 90 minutes of laughs, scares, and a hint of depth for good measure.