My heart sank about five minutes into “The Visit,” when it became clear the entire film was going to be yet another “found footage” movie, seen through the lenses of characters who keep the cameras going even when their lives are in danger.
My heart sank about five minutes deeper into “The Visit,” when a single mother sent her two children to spend a week with her estranged parents. Not only is it a dubious decision on mom’s part, her failure to do a particular thing any parent would do in that situation is a huge tipoff to a potential BIG TWIST coming late in the story.
My heart sank once again when a precocious, 13-year-old boy with long blond hair and a lisp started rapping, and kept on rapping. (Spoiler alert: The kid raps twice more before we’re released from this ordeal.)
“The Visit” has been touted as a comeback for M. Night Shyamalan, who once upon the time was one of the finest young filmmakers in the world, gifting us with original, exciting movies such as “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” and “Unbreakable.”
Alas, it’s a dopey, only mildly chilling, uneasy mix of horror and dark comedy, scoring few points in either category.
You know that moment in just about every scary movie when you want to scream at the characters, “JUST GET OUT OF THE HOUSE AND RUN”? This is the grand champion of those movies.
Kathryn Hahn plays Paula, whose life is something of a train wreck. She married her high school teacher right after graduation, had a huge fight with her parents and never spoke to them again, and had two children with her husband, who then up and left her and the kids for some girl he met at a Starbucks. We learn Paula has tried medication, therapy, other relationships — but she’s still deeply unhappy.
Now daughter Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) is 15, son and aforementioned wannabe rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) is 13 — and Paula’s parents have found her on Facebook and invited the grandchildren to spend a week on their farmhouse in Pennsylvania, which sits on one of those Scary Movie Streets where if neighbors exist, we never see or hear from them.
What could possibly go wrong?
Rebecca is making a documentary about the trip, so we get to experience nearly the entire movie through her shaky little lens work. Oh joy. (She gives Tyler a camera, the better for Shyamalan to give us two viewpoints in many scenes.)
Deanna Dunagan is Grandma Doris and Peter McRobbie is “Pop-Pop” John, and from the get-go something seems just a little … off about these two. Maybe it’s Grandma’s habit of projectile vomiting at night, sitting in a rocking chair facing the wall and cackling wildly or asking Rebecca to crawl inside the oven to give it a good cleaning. Maybe it’s Pop-Pop’s habit of dressing up for a “costume party,” only to realize that party was years ago, or his mysterious doings in the shed, or his warnings to the children to stay put in their bedroom every night after 9:30 p.m.
Their idiot mother Skypes with them and says this is what happens when you’re old — you forget things and you act a little weird. Rebecca, supposedly such a bright young kid, tells her brother the same thing. No biggie. When people get old, they get weird. Doesn’t mean we should be afraid of them.
Are you kidding me?
We get the obligatory Friendly Supporting Characters who show up at the house unannounced. We get the classic Gotcha sting when a character will suddenly leap into frame and give us a genuine if contrived scare. We get a basement, and we get a character who has accumulated so much information it would be nearly suicidal to go into that basement, and what do you think that character does?
Olivia DeJonge does capable work as Rebecca, but she’s stuck playing a character that alternates between talking like a pretentious little film student and making incredibly dumb decisions. Ed Oxenbould fares worse playing a kid who’s germaphobic, is prone to literally freezing in place when the pressure’s on, is a terrible rapper — AND thinks it’s funny to say the names of young female pop singers instead of swearing. (“When I stub my toe, I’ll just say ‘Shakira!’ ” he explains to his sister.)
The old folks are a hoot, with McRobbie particularly entertaining as Pop-Pop, who has a maniacal interest in playing Yahtzee and claims he’s a Grandmaster at the game. OK.
I loved Shyamalan’s first movies. I greatly admired Shyamalan’s talent for creating modern fables. He had become one of those “event” directors — each new release felt like something you just couldn’t afford to miss.
Even when Shyamalan seemed to be losing the touch, with films such as “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” receiving mostly negative reviews, I was staying with him. Granted, these films were nowhere near the instant-classic level of his early work, but there was still some creativity in every story, still a lot of risk-taking from Shyamalan.
Then came the real stumbles. The less said about the likes of “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender,” the better.
It would have been such a pleasure to report “The Visit” is indeed a return to form for Shyamalan.
Unfortunately, Night falls.
Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Running time: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language). Opens Friday at local theaters.