Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: The Visit

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
M. Night Shyamalan goes back to the well - but with fewer resources - with this low budget horror movie that relies on the type of twist that made his "The Sixth Sense" such a success. But, sadly, this return is middling at best.

The director's trio of twisty thrillers - the solid "Sixth Sense," much better "Unbreakable" and extremely creepy "Signs" - still hold up, but Shyamalan's work since those three has been spotty - "The Village" was conceptually interesting, but a failure in execution. "Lady in the Water" was, well, God knows what. "The Happening" was ridiculous, but at least kind of fun. And "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth" were virtually unwatchable.

"The Visit" is a modestly scaled attempt at a comeback for the filmmaker and while it has a few creepy moments, it's mostly just a tiresome series of jump scares and found footage cliches.

In the picture, two siblings - Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) - pay a visit to the grandparents they've never met. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with them years before, but never reconnected. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to make a documentary about their week-long visit with their grandparents, who live in - what else? - an isolated farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Shyamalan makes the most out of the scenery, which is creepy in the way that many houses in the middle of nowhere surrounded by woods and sparse scenery tend to be. Shortly after their arrival, Becca and Tyler begin to notice strange goings-on - grandma (Deanna Dunagan) has a proclivity for crawling around on all fours late at night and quite often semi-nude. Grandpa (Peter McRobbie) takes frequent trips to the barn, where he stores bloodied diapers and can occasionally be spotted with a shotgun in his mouth.

There are some unsettling scenes to be had during all of this, especially one in which the siblings play hide and seek under the creaky old house only to find that they have a third member playing the game. Most of the rest of the scares primarily involve the old folks popping up when you least expect them to in front of the camera, which apparently is always turned on.

Even more unsettling than the film's numerous jump scares are the script choices. The level of Becca's precociousness is a little too difficult to swallow and would her brother really know the meaning of mise en scene? Worse, Tyler's character has a tendency to break out in random rap lyrics of his own inventing that would make even the 90's worst white rapper (choose your own artist and insert here) cringe. Someone must have found these scenes funny, but I'm not sure who that someone was. Certainly no one in the theater where I watched "The Visit."

On the other hand, there's a pretty funny running joke in which virtually every adult who crosses Becca's path used to be an actor and, therefore, feels compelled to show off their thespian credentials. Also, Tyler's decision to replace curse words with the names of female pop stars is occasionally amusing. But only occasionally.

Shyamalan can make a good thriller ("The Sixth Sense") and he knows how to frighten people (see "Signs" for evidence). And "Unbreakable" is not only a tense thriller, but it's also philosophically adept. So, it's unfortunate that the picture in his oeuvre to which I'd compare "The Visit" is "The Village," which is another film with an interesting concept that never quite materializes onscreen.

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