M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” is an expression of an errant director’s return to his roots. The unique mockumentary style brings new life to the classic horror story narrative while simultaneously defying all natural instinct — who would first grab a heavy video camera while being attacked by possessed grandparents? However, the film’s handheld camera, comparatively low budget and minimalist setting indicate a retroactive quality for the director, which, in the case of “The Visit,” turns out to be a good thing.
The story follows two precocious siblings, Becca and Tyler Jamison (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively), as they meet their estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) for the first time. They spend the week with Nana and Pop Pop in their quiet Pennsylvanian home while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a cruise, maintaining communication through Skype calls. From the moment the Jamison siblings step off the train, the story becomes a challenge of pacing the grandparents’ scariness so it doesn’t pass off as zaniness. Nana and Pop Pop describe their condition as “sundowning,” an affliction of the mind that directly correlates with the sun setting. At night, Nana runs around the house with a knife, naked and vomiting, sometimes synchronously. Pop Pop stores his adult diapers in a barn and tackles strangers, but never synchronously. These activities happen earlier and earlier in the day, and capturing the downward spiral on camera is Becca and Tyler. Becca serves as the movie’s protagonist, documentarian and camerawoman, a job she sometimes seems far too dedicated to for the sake of her own safety. At her side, Becca’s little brother Tyler brings comic relief in the form of adolescent humor and raps. Later on, his pop-culture references and amusing one-liners become crutches for the frightened audience, as the film’s increasingly terrifying plot found audiences searching for opportunities to laugh. Shyamalan catered all too well to these stresses with a well-placed zinger or a shot of bare buttocks. However, these cursory moments of hilarity didn’t stop the story from snowballing into an alarming, diaper-laden dialogue about the fear of old people.
Far too much screen time is dedicated to establishing just how crazy the Jamison grandparents can be. The repetitive scenes of Nana running around the house and Pop Pop lurking by the barn, while effective the second and third times, became a bit hackneyed and predictable by the time the plot twist was revealed. However, the plot twist does not disappoint. It is just as groan-worthy as one could expect.
Though the film has its vexing moments, “The Visit” is easily Shyamalan’s comeback movie. Convincingly amateur but cinematically framed, the film’s handheld style creates an intimate home video aesthetic while following a contrastingly gruesome storyline. It is Hansel and Gretel in the 21st century. This unique approach transforms the film into a primary source, lifting the horror story out of the usually invisible cameraman’s tale and into the protagonist’s own hands, effectively allowing the audience to experience the horror firsthand. It sidesteps the shakiness of “Funniest Home Videos” and the incredulity of paranormal television with the help of very good actors paired with a well-structured script. The straightforward narrative showcases Shyamalan’s talents as an original screenwriter and director of the horror genre.
“The Visit” premiered on Tuesday, Sept. 8, and will be in theaters nationwide on Sept. 11.
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