“Call ‘The Visit’ a bona fide comeback for M. Night”
Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Kathryn Hahn
“Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”
Twenty-five years ago, LL Cool J bellowed these lyrics in the rap classic, “Mama Said Knock You Out”, and for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, he has “been here for years” (since 1999’s “The Sixth Sense”) as well, but is in desperate need of a comeback film. He has not captured cinematic or box office magic since 2002’s “Signs”, and although he admirably takes risks with his pictures, Shyamalan has recently stumbled with “The Happening” (2008), “The Last Airbender” (2010) and the truly unfortunate “After Earth” (2013). Quite frankly, any reasonable individual would recognize his next good film as his comeback. I am happy to report “The Visit” is very good and, indeed, that film.
Like most of his movies, this one takes place in Pennsylvania. In the tiny community of Masonville, PA, Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) live in a large farmhouse amongst gray skies, large leafless trees and smallish drifts of harden snow. Their surroundings are typical of any rural northeastern community in the beginning or ending of winter, and with an occasional, shrilling wind, Masonville feels like the Headless Horseman should be chasing Ichabod Crane at any given moment.
Now, the residents of this “Sleeping Hollow Ranch” are named Pop Pop and Nana, because their grandkids affectionately address them by those titles. Teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are visiting their grandparents – who they never met - for a week, while their mom (Kathyrn Hahn) takes a much needed cruise with her boyfriend. Their mom has not spoken to her parents since she left home at 19, so her children have been estranged from Pop Pop and Nana by proxy.
With two video cameras in tow – and a surprising knowledge of filmmaking and various terms like “narrative character” and “visual tension” – Becca and Tyler decide to film their family reunion week as a documentary with all the excitement and wide-eyed innocence which only kids can muster. Unfortunately, the bloom falls off this bloodline rose when the teens discover Pop Pop and Nana demonstrate very disturbing and dangerous behaviors. I’ll refrain from giving way lots of examples, but I’ll just mention one:
After pulling out an empty tray from the oven, Nana asks Becca, “Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?”
This eerie moment is only the tip of the utterly creepy iceberg as Shyamalan’s new movie is not a thriller, but a pure horror film. With his expert use of visual storytelling – by using techniques like the aforementioned visual tension - he delivers a highly effective, hair-raising tale. This is literally the case, as the hair on my arms stood up on end about a half-dozen times.
The film delivers plenty of scares, because Shyamalan develops a clear sense of place. It is a helpless and near-hopeless one. This isolated farm with no cellular service houses two unfamiliar and unstable individuals, and Becca and Tyler attempt to bond with their grandparents while they simultaneously are very troubled by them. Even though they could “escape” by running through miles of open fields, Shyamalan does a masterful job of presenting a setting for emotional entrapment and directly transmitting it to the audience. The kids do not simply leave, because their highly weird grandparents are still family, and as viewers, we completely feel the pull from these invisible chains.
To gain some reprieve from this demonstrative pull, the film volleys between high suspense and a surprising amount of comedy. Although the lighter moments offer many loud belly laughs, the screenplay’s – seemingly – dozens of jokey flashes do feel a bit much. More than a few times, I wanted less playfulness and more subdued spookiness. Tyler also prides himself as a 13 year-old rap artist, but his rhymes bring a high cheesiness-factor, and worse yet, they feel dated. Perhaps Tyler showing off bad poetry slam skills would have been a better comedic choice, but either way, I would have preferred less hijinks.
I also question two other creative choices: the misplaced musical number towards the end of the film and the inclusion of multiple ending scenes. Both decisions certainly took away from an otherwise captivating closing act.
These are narrative hiccups, but when looking at the entire picture, “The Visit” offers a very entertaining, smart and deep dive into horror. I have a feeling – after seeing this movie - millions of parents might pause for a moment before leaving the kids with the grandparents. After feeling pulled by invisible chains for 94 minutes, it would be difficult to blame them. Just remember, it is only a movie, a bona fide comeback movie which knocked me out. (3/4 stars)