“The Visit” Movie Review

     You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who was not completely blown away by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakout film “The Sixth Sense”, where audiences were first introduced to his unique visual style and penchant for staging plot twists that would have us talking for days.  While his follow ups included “Unbreakable”, “Signs”, and “The Village”, all of which were well received, Shyamalan has fallen on hard times the last decade with a string of critical and box office bombs such as “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” that left him in a position of which many filmmakers never recover.  Perhaps the low point was the Wil Smith science fiction opus “After Earth” where the studio didn’t feature Shyamalan’s name anywhere on the promotional materials even though he’s a director who is accustomed to receiving top billing equal to the featured actors.  Of course, “After Earth” also left a lot to be desired and was one of the summer of 2013’s biggest flops.  So where does that leave an endlessly talented filmmaker like Shyamalan today?  The answer just may be in his newest offering, the found footage comedy/horror film “The Visit”, where he has seemingly exited the realm of big budget tentpoles and settled back into his low budget roots where his screenwriting ability can do the talking.

     “The Visit” is another found footage film that creates a timely and convenient reason as to why the main characters are constantly toting a video camera everywhere they go.  This, of course, is always a weakness of the genre since eventually the story will reach a point where the audience just doesn’t buy it anymore.  Shyamalan has written in a number of convenient plot devices that, for the most part, fill in any oncoming plot holes later in the film and this allows the viewer to concentrate on the story and what’s going on, rather than question why a character has a video camera rolling at a crucial moment.  And while “The Visit” seemed to involve many of the standard horror film tropes we’ve become accustomed to over the last several decades, Shyamalan has infused his story with a massive dose of comic relief.  These comedic outbursts, deployed purposefully throughout, are likely meant to camouflage the zinger of a twist he has planned for later, which is a hallmark of his films. 

     We’re first introduced to a mother being interviewed by her daughter on camera for the beginning of what will be a documentary about a trip to visit their grandparents.  The mom, played by Kathryn Hahn, tells the camera that she left her parents farm at the age of 19 in order to marry the man of her dreams.  Because the parents didn’t agree with her decision, they haven’t spoken since.  Now in present day, the mid thirties mom is divorced and is the single mom of a 15 year old daughter, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), and a 13 year old son, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould).  Becca and Tyler are about to embark on a weeklong trip to stay with their grandparents of whom they have never met, while their mother goes on a cruise with her boyfriend.  As luck would have it, Becca is also an aspiring filmmaker and will be filming her and her brother’s entire experience, thus eliminating the questions as to why either of these two would be walking down a dark hallway with a video camera in their hand.

     When Becca and Tyler arrive via train in a remote part of Pennsylvania, they are greeted by their grandparents, of whom they refer to as Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), and taken to the farm where they still live.  Things seems normal enough.  Nana bakes all sorts of sweets for them and Pop Pop works around the farm chopping wood and tending to the grounds.  Shyamalan uses a “Paranormal Activity” like structure and timeline in which we are informed by a title on the screen as to what day it is and like that film, the weird stuff starts at a subtle level and increases in intensity as the days go on.  On the first night, Pop Pop informs the kids that it is best they go to sleep and stay in their room after 9:30PM.  We initially experience a lot of strange noises with the kids, which sound as though they are right outside the door or possibly coming from downstairs.  Shyamalan stages a lot of this with Tyler opening the bedroom door to reveal to Becca and her camera what’s on the other side.  What’s on the other side each night is for you to see in the theater, but rest assured, the filmmakers here have come up with much more than the one trick pony “things that go bump in the night” scares that seem to occupy the majority of every horror flick these days.

     Since the entire film is told from the perspective of a 15 year old and a 13 year old, you do get the sense they become a little irritating as the story moves into the third act.  For their part, both Dejonge and Oxenbould are pretty good.  Especially Oxenbould when he’s used for some of that aforementioned comic relief as he is an aspiring rapper who replaces cuss words with the names of familiar pop singers which is timed perfectly during several of the film’s most intense moments.  The way Becca and Tyler respond to and justify some of the weirdness exhibited by their grandparents is hilarious.  One note that rings through is the perception by all that when someone isn’t acting or feeling normal, their diagnosis is only a few keyboard strokes away on Google.  Of course, what the kids surmise is the issue couldn’t be further from the truth and Shyamalan’s latest twist ending will definitely throw you for a loop.  While “The Visit” doesn’t necessarily measure up to “The Sixth Sense”, it does fall right in line with his better work and never fails to entertain from its first minute to its last. All the while finding a way to examine how kids deal with divorce and some of the coping mechanisms they employ in order to survive the situation at an emotional level. The found footage format doesn’t really give Shyamalan the ability to expand on his visual style, but “The Visit” does excel with the outstanding performances by the film’s four leads and a story that may go down as one of his best.  GRADE: B