The Visit arrives lugging some baggage. It’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s a found-footage horror movie. For many film fans, just one of those factors would be an automatic turnoff. But The Visit has one really big thing going for it: it’s entertaining as hell.
The premise is simple. Teenage siblings Becca (Olivia deJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) head to the snowy countryside to visit the grandparents they’ve never met. They’re able to Skype with their vacationing mother (Kathryn Hahn), who hasn’t spoken to her own parents since her post-high school elopement with the kids’ now-absent father. But there’s no cell service so deep in the woods, so Becca and Tyler spend most of their time getting to know Nana and Pop Pop... who begin acting stranger and stranger as each day passes.
Shyamalan tackles his first script challenge—explaining why this movie is “filmed” by a 15-year-old girl—by making Becca an aspiring documentarian. While this precocious ambition is frequently gently mocked (“We’re looking for visual tension,” she lectures Tyler), it offers a way to believably sustain the found-footage device throughout the movie. It also serves as a metaphor for her character flaws; though she’s obsessed with filming everything she needs for her documentary—which is (she hopes) about the healing of her broken family—she’s unable to able to perceive what’s going on below the surface.
Consequently, she’s slow to catch up with her younger brother in realizing that something is very, very off about their grandparents.
The clues don’t take long to appear, though they’re subtle at first. Of course, we know this is a horror movie, so we’re hyper-aware of each little incident. The kids arrive for a week-long stay (each day is announced with on-screen titles, a la The Shining: “Monday Morning”), and at first, everything seems great. Pop Pop guffaws at Tyler’s hip-hop stylings (Oxenbould is a sharp little comedian, but the wannabe-rapper thing isn’t nearly as hilarious as Shyamalan seems to think it is), and Nana plies the kids with an endless array of delicious baked goods.
Their first flickers of odd behavior are easily explained away by their advanced age. Nana’s bizarre nighttime fits are chalked up to what Pop Pop explains as “sundowning,” a form of dementia that’s reassuringly Google-able. “We’re confused old fools,” they chuckle self-deprecatingly. And though the kids find themselves doing double-takes on occasion (because nobody feels good about catching a glimpse of their grandmother’s naked butt), there’s still a sense of unease that begins to escalate as more and more red flags pop up.
Shyamalan has taken a lot of knocks for the twist endings that’ve become his trademark. But part of the reason why that trope is so loathed (in his particular case, at least) is because he’s actually really good at cultivating slow-building dread. With each passing moment, Becca and Tyler’s situation becomes more dire; even if they don’t want to accept that the nutty things Nana and Pop Pop do are veering into dangerous territory, the audience knows where this is going. Even though we ostensibly see everything the kids see, since Becca (and occasionally Tyler) are supposed to be doing all the cinematography, we have the advantage when there are shots like the one above, in which Nana stares a few beats too long (and a few shades too hungrily) her granddaughter, who’s still oblivious—in part because she’s so longing for this trip to make her family happy and whole again—to the fact that there’s more going on here than an awkward afternoon of baking cookies.
When all that hard-earned tension comes crashing down with a sudden shock, it can feel like a cheat. When I think of The Village, I instantly remember how supremely annoyed I was by the last-act revelation. But if I can stop my eyes from rolling in disgust, I will eventually recall that The Village had some legitimately scary scenes. (It did! It really did.)
By now, with The Visit, we’ve become so accustomed to Shyamalan’s technique that we go into the film anticipating a twist, then spend half the time while watching the film trying to guess what it will be. It seems not unreasonable that the writer-director is aware of this, because he sprinkles plenty of hints throughout, inviting the viewer to play along and try to suss out exactly what’s up with these kooky oldsters. Are they pod people? Possessed by demons? Ghosts? Secret supervillains?
He also draws from traditions beyond his own, taking inspiration (as he has in the past) from fairy tales, especially “Hansel and Gretel,” which is cleverly used as a terrifying reference point more than once.
In case it hasn’t yet been made clear, The Visit is indeed quite scary. It’s also legitimately funny. Becca and Tyler are thoroughly modern kids who find themselves dropped into a situation that’s way out of their frame of reference, and—at least until things turn more menacing—they react to the weirdness with what feels like a realistic mix of naïveté and amusement. An early scene, glimpsed in the below trailer, concerns a game of hide-and-seek that pinballs from fun to shriek-inducingly petrifying to “Well, haha, uh, that was kinda creepy” with head-spinning velocity. And the humor stays consistent throughout the film, aside from a few scenes that are played for pure horror—thanks mostly to the fact that Tyler, a natural ham, is the camera-toting Becca’s most frequent subject.
The movie’s biggest flaws, unfortunately, tie into its dominant theme: the importance of family ties. Over and over, we’re reminded that Becca and Tyler’s mother hasn’t spoken to her parents in 15 years, and though the argument that drove them apart is now a moot point, they’ve all been too hurt, stubborn, prideful, etc. to make amends. There are also frequent references to the children’s father abandoning them some years prior, complete with inevitable home-movie footage depicting Happier Times.
Breaking apart from one’s family is, without a doubt, presented as the ultimate horror, twinned with the fear that if you wait too long to ask for forgiveness, it might be too late and that window will be closed forever. The kids’ mother is described as struggling with depression and loneliness, while Becca and Tyler, for all their outward bravado, also grapple with unresolved sadness and anger. It’s these vulnerabilities that leave them open to what happens in The Visit—and allow Shyamalan to ladle on excessive sappiness as part of his final thoughts. He also offers an unpleasant throwback to Signs by clumsily introducing random character traits that feel forced... until they play an important role in the film’s climax. Tyler’s a germophobe, you say? Hmm, I wonder if that will be important? (Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes, it will.)
But in the end, despite these few ham-fisted missteps, The Visit is undeniably enjoyable, helped along by a stellar cast both young and old (Deanna Dunagan, who plays Nana, is a Tony winner; Peter McRobbie, who plays Pop Pop, played a judge for 18 years on Law and Order). Shyamalan may seem to relish being frustrating, but there’s always been a certain sense that he really just wants to entertain his audience—taken with the caveat that sometimes, “entertain” might mean “scare the bejesus out of.” And here, at least, he succeeds.