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M. Night Shyamalan returns to form with “The Visit” (movie review)

By Jeff Boudreaux

The_Visit_(2015_film)_poster

 

Just when you thought it was safe to write M. Night Shyamalan’s early career off as a fluke after the disastrous releases of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” the once-promising writer/director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” and “Unbreakable” appears to be headed in the right direction once again with the release of “The Visit” – his first co-production with horror machine Blumhouse Productions. After all, this has been a pretty good year for the 45-year-old Indian-born auteur: He produced (and directed the first episode of) “Wayward Pines,” the critically acclaimed Fox summer miniseries. Here he gets back to doing what he does best, which is providing thrills and chills to theatrical audiences, a feat sure to satisfy his committed fanbase to boot. While I really didn’t know what to initially expect from the hype surrounding “The Visit,” this darkly-comic horror opus grabbed my attention early on, and manages to deliver a fresh yet disturbing outlook on the oft-told “visit to grandma’s house!”

Tight-knit siblings Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and Becca (Olivia DeJonge) are unloaded by their loving mother (Kathryn Hahn) onto a train to visit their grandparents, whom they’ve never met or even spoken to on a telephone. What could possibly go wrong??? Even more peculiar is the fact that mom hasn’t spoken to them in 15 years, but since she’s about to embark on a week-long Royal Caribbean cruise with her boyfriend, someone has to deal with them, right? Well, it’s not hard for Nana (Tony award-winner Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie of “Lincoln”) to lovingly welcome Tyler and Becca into their lives. Tyler is a funny and playful young man who just happens to love belting out freestyle raps to anyone who’ll listen. And Becca, well let’s just say when the groovy train came by, Tyler was the only one ready to board. That’s not to say that Becca is all humdrum, she’s just a little more studious and she’s come equipped with cameras and a computer because she’s actually making an amateur documentary film about their stay. Okay.visit pc

Now Nana and Pop-Pop start out normally enough, they’re old and very un-hip, but they are oh, so nice and Nana just always seems to be fixing something scrumptious in the kitchen. The kids are free to do whatever kids do, but the elderly couple does have one rule: bedtime is at 9:30. Without any cell phone coverage or Wi-Fi this appears to be a pretty hard sell, but Tyler and Becca give the house rules the benefit of the doubt. However, certain things start happening beyond the frame of their bedroom door. There are scratching sounds in the hallway, retching sounds downstairs, and doors slamming repeatedly. Unfortunately the strange occurrences aren’t merely conducted at night as the previews juxtaposition us to believe. As each day goes by, the two old people grow stranger and it becomes imperative that Tyler and Becca get to the bottom of why they can’t go in the basement, or the shed, and why Pop-Pop keeps trying to get dressed up for a costume party!

Visit oven

This film has a lot going for it. It’s funny, it’s frightening, and it boasts some really strong performances from two of its core actors. Ed Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) proves to be a very likeable lead, providing many of the laughs in the screenplay by Shyamalan. Stage veteran Deanna Dunagan shows her versatility in the key role of Nana, the matriarch of madness. Whether she’s trying to get Becca to clean the inside of her life-size oven or she’s crawling on all-fours like Regan MacNeil, the actress begs a certain command from the lens and she gets it. Conversely, McRobbie’s Pop-Pop is more low-key in the scares department. We see glimmers of a soul in his eyes, and when he’s relating to the children the “reasons” for Nana’s peculiarities; we actually begin to wonder if we’re watching some whacked-out family version of “Away From Her.” 

This is not to say that Shyamalan’s film comes equipped with a complete clean streak (especially if you’ve been hanging around Pop-Pop). Because the film stumbled slightly coming out of the starting gate, taking a few minutes to position itself on a definitive course, I became aware that this is, in fact, yet another “found footage” horror movie. I have to admit, I could not discern this from the trailers. However, Shyamalan does make the wise decision of incorporating the technological devices as more than just a plot device, so we can’t fault him for that.

Visit Becca

I guess the biggest question for viewers going into this film is: just what is the truth behind Nana and Pop-Pop. Are they possessed by demons? Aliens? Or are they just a couple of old people who aren’t in complete control of their faculties? Mum’s the word, but what I can say is that there is a twist that few will see coming. When the dust settles, Shyamalan satisfies nearly every emotion or want that I have, as a viewer. He unflinchingly goes to places that he rightfully should to authenticate our story, and pulls back when we think he might be going in a different direction. We are, in turn, effectively on our own “visit” to the dark world of M. Night Shyamalan that we all knew was possible. We’ve seen hints of it before; we just haven’t been invited there in years.

*** (three out of four stars)

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