He gave us "The Sixth Sense," "Signs" and "Unbreakable," and was heralded as the next Spielberg. Then came "Lady in the Water," "The Happening," and the soul-crushing blandness that was "The Last Airbender," which cemented his name into a punch line. But don’t count out M. Night Shyamalan just yet. With "The Visit," this spirited filmmaker reminds us of the power he has to thrill an audience , and the fun that can be found in his twisted tales.
Starring Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, "The Visit" follows teen siblings on a trip to meet grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) who've have been long estranged from their mother (the eternally affable Kathryn Hahn). While their mom is away and only reachable through the occasional Skype call, 15-year-old Rebecca (DeJonge) hopes to bring some closure to this familial rift by making a documentary about their stay. Her girl-crazy 13-year-old brother Tyler (or T Diamond Stylus, if you prefer his rapper name) serves as her B-camera operator and, more importantly, her reality check as their footage grows increasingly freaky.
While the found-footage genre has become overrun with sloppily shot messes, Shyamalan deftly sidesteps this horror convention's biggest pitfalls. Although there is some "shaky cam" to be found, the film is largely shot in smooth, thoughtful setups that befit Rebecca's enthusiasm for making a worthwhile doc. There's visual tension in shots that leave open corners that could be filled with a frightening figure. And there are no headaches to be had from a droning blur of dodgy camera work. Better still, Shyamalan justifies the cameras' prevalence by making them a security blanket for the spooked siblings. In a world where so much seems beyond their control, their documentary-in-the-making feels like something they can control.
Shyamalan shines in scenes where childish dares (like chasing each other underneath the porch) turn into devilish scares (like grandma unexpectedly joining the game with an eerie relish). Of course, there are patronizing explanations about granny's strange behavior, essentially boiling down to "old people act funny sometimes." But as the kids' final day on the family farm draws closer, so does the sickening realization that something's really wrong with the woman who cackles at walls and urges her grandchildren into her conspicuously large oven. Punctuated by crooked smiles and dull eyes, Dunagan is breathtaking as the movie's monster, mutating from pitiably vulnerable to perfectly vicious at a breakneck speed that's deliciously disturbing.
Yet, it's a pleasant surprise that "The Visit" is rollicking, frightening fun, fit for the whole family. Kids are at its core, and a PG-13 rating limits the gore and the cursing in a way that feels organic to the film, as opposed to coldly tactical to its marketability. The cameras cleverly avoid angles that would be too gruesome for youngsters, yet doesn't deaden the impact of its violence. And Tyler's decision that it'd be more fun for him to use pop-star names ("Shakira!" "Sarah McLachlan!") in place of curse words creates a clever censorship dodge, as well as a running gag that (remarkably) pays off every time.
Admittedly, mileage on the kid heroes may vary for grown-ups. While Oxenblould and DeJonge have an earnest charisma, one person's "adorable" is another's "obnoxious" (I grew a little tired of Tyler's tawdry raps). But where certain recent family adventures have doled out kids so unappealing you might root against them, "The Visit" establishes a dysfunctional but loving mother-daughter-son trio that feels real, complex and worthy of our attention and cheers.
Shyamalan's screenplay crafts relatable siblings whose differences make for great comedic collisions and banter, smoothing the rough edges of the storyline. Then he threw them into a scary scenario where the possibilities are endless. Are these grandparents possessed? Aliens? Infested by killer trees? The answer is sick and satisfying, complemented by a conclusion that's emotionally rich and uniquely charming.
Watching "The Visit," I was pleasantly reminded of the classic Nickelodeon series, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?," in which a kid would be pitched into peril, forced to figure a way out without parental intervention. I remember watching those shows in a dark room, daring myself not to blink, not to turn on the lights, but to lean into the fear. Decades later, surrounded by a raucous crowd that was loving the hell out of this ghoulish thrill ride, I screamed. I threw my hands over my face. I lost my cool and felt like a kid again. And I wasn't alone, which made it awesome.
"The Visit" opens today.