The Visit review: Night terrors mark a return to form
After several shocking misfires, M Night Shyamalan is back to his best with a spectacularly scary movie, says Andrew Johnston
Following the commercially and critically all-conquering run of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, writer-director M Night Shyamalan seemed set to be the next Steven Spielberg. But a string of creative misfires - The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth - took the wind out of his sails in ignominious fashion. And now, the man who redefined the thriller movie in the late 1990s and early 2000s returns with a 'found footage' horror flick, produced by low-budget knock-'em-out king Jason Blum. It's the cinematic equivalent of Alice Cooper opening for Motley Crue.
Happily, the reduction in circumstances appears to have done Shyamalan a lot of good, as The Visit is easily his most compelling work in a decade. Despite its rather bland title - one it shares with a 1964 Ingrid Bergman vehicle, a 2000 prison drama and even an upcoming alien invasion mockumentary - the darkly comic yarn is as original as it is fun to watch.
In a refreshing switch-around of the usual 'creepy kids' motif, The Visit plays on children's fears of the elderly, as well as exploring themes of grief and loss. When teenagers Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler Jamison (Ed Oxenbould) are sent by their stressed-out mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) to rural Pennsylvania to stay with her estranged parents - whom the youngsters have never met - the pair become increasingly disturbed by the old folks' peculiar habits and utterances.
The understated DeJonge makes for a sympathetic lead, offering a welcome counterbalance to Oxenbould's more precocious turn as the hip hop-obsessed Tyler. Meanwhile, character actors Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie deliver stellar performances as 'Nana' and 'Pop Pop', a couple of wrinkly weirdos who insist on bedtime at 9.30pm and have many a skeleton lurking in various closets, cellars and barns.
Several of the picture's scares are of the sudden jolt variety, though Shyamalan also employs plenty of psychological shock tactics, and it's all served up with a side-helping of sardonic humour, courtesy of Rebecca and Tyler's commentary, as the duo continually tape proceedings (she's hoping to make a documentary about the visit for her mum).
Sure, the found footage sub-genre may have disappeared up its own viewfinder somewhere around the third Paranormal Activity sequel, but the form works well in Shyamalan's hands. There are few of the clunky asides to camera, and you somehow manage not to spend half the film wondering why the protagonists would keep recording, while the keen-eyed helmer has steered away from giving the visuals a grainy sheen. The Visit looks spectacular.
Of course, with the screenplay coming from the pen of Shyamalan, there's an almighty twist to the tale. Some viewers may see it coming from early on in the admirably brief running time, but it's no less effective for that, and it actually wraps the story up neatly without leading to too much scratching of heads once the credits roll.
Mind you, the same can't be said about Oxenbould's character's closing rap, which is more painful than any of the carnage wreaked upon Rebecca and Tyler during the preceding 94 minutes.