Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Olivia De Jonge, Ed Oxenbould
3 (out of 5) Globes
Despite the vitriol often heaped his way, there are many things M. Night Shyamalan does well — indeed, better than most. He’s strong with slow, creeping mood, and not only when building suspense sequences. He knows the value of off-screen space. His sincerity often curdles into unintentional camp, but when he deals with overcoming trauma he often achieves real transcendence. (Shyamalan has said he didn’t come up with the dead people angle in “The Sixth Sense” until a few drafts in, and the best parts — Haley Joel Osment’s abrupt, climactic confession of his powers to his mom, say — play like straight-up therapy.)
Almost none of these talents are what make “The Visit” as rollicking as it is. In fact, the things that it does well are things that have generally, for him, gone disastrously, namely comedy and quick footing. Shyamalan is rarely intentionally funny, and when he tries to crack jokes one laughs at them, not with them. (Think of Mark Wahlberg’s earnest plea with what turns out to be a fake house plant in “The Happening” — a poorly-timed gag dropped into a movie already bursting at the seams with laugh-at-the-movie yuks.) But “The Visit,” in which he crashes the party of cheapie found footage horror, is funny, or at least fun. It’s not a gag machine but it has a vervy, zippy zeal and, minus a subplot about estranged parents, close to no po-faced moments. It doesn’t take itself seriously and for once it warmly welcomes you to giggle (and maybe scream once or twice, but that’s not important) along with it.
Despite the credits boasting the name Jason Blum, the king of “Paranormal Activity” and ilk, “The Visit” isn’t technically found footage. It’s a mock-doc, and one with the camera largely set on surfaces, and therefore clean-looking. (Still, only two instances of shaky-cam running is something worth applauding.) The film-within-the-film is made by two kids — aspiring filmmaker teen Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge), who drops terms like “mise en scene” like it’s hot, and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) — as they shlep off to the grandparents’ for a week-long hoedown.
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Their mom (Kathryn Hahn, whose giggly persona sets the beaming tone) hasn’t seen her mom and dad in eons. Nevertheless she recklessly, probably libelously packs her two for a visit, partly so she can gallivant on a cruise ship with her new boo. (There’s an errant dad there — one of the usual Shyamalanian Spielbergian touches.) When they meet grandma (Deanna Dunagan) and pop-pop (Peter McRobbie), they seem like typical, mildly demented olds. Then they start acting weirder. Soon it appears something, something maybe supernatural and M. Nightian, is afoot.
There’s a twist — the director’s first real one since 2004’s “The Village” — but it arrives around the last half hour, and it’s a gentler, goofier, almost subversive one than the ones that made the director’s name. It’s almost even worth spoiling, but all we’ll say is it plays with the general perception of the elderly as doddering, harmless infantiles who people brush off as merely old. Thing is, Shyamalan doesn’t quite know what to do with it. It’s downright weird watching one of his films not particularly structured around Hitchcock knock-off (as opposed to Hitchcockian) set pieces. There’s no stand-out moments, and an early one — set in a cramped, disorienting maze underneath a patio — only comes alive due to a pretty solid punchline. There are plenty of times when Shyamalan locks the camera in a fixed position, but the payoff tends to be flubbed or never really attempted. He’s all about an air of good, sometimes nasty humor, and even when things finally go haywire he goes for over-the-top joke-jolts that are probably more messed-up than Shyamalan realizes.
That being said, “The Visit” still plays, especially as a horror that recognizes the build is more important than the delivery. Shyamalan is inconsistent with kid actors, having directed some of the best (in “The Sixth Sense,” of course, but also in “Signs”) and some of the worst (in the pathetically Central Casting-y “The Last Airbender”). But De Jonge is serious without being a drag and Oxenbould has precociously sharp comic timing. They and the quicksilver pacing are tantamount to charming one’s way out of one’s problems, which is good as otherwise “The Visit” is beyond sloppy. It routinely plants things (a scary old grandfather clock, talk of aliens, something called “The Elixir”) then fails to pay them off. There’s a thing with an oven with a nothing follow-through. We could go on, but instead we’ll say if Shyamalan ever finds a way to marry what works here to the other things he does well elsewhere, look out.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge