The Visit review: Night terrors mark a return to form

11 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

“The Visit” movie review: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller.

A family get-together starts out strange and quickly enters nightmare territory in “The Visit,” a horror-thriller that turns soiled adult diapers into a motif. Once the children discover that the elderly couple is involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home growing smaller every day. The movie, filmed from the perspective of a brother and sister who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a weeklong trip, is a sticky mess.

Aligned with schlockmeister Jason Blum, Shyamalan now gives his fans “The Visit,” one of those dreary “found footage” efforts (“found footage” meaning Grade Z), concerning children in peril. I could have gotten this money from anywhere.’ “But it was a conscious decision to be as idiosyncratic as I can be and not think in terms of what will be commercial or what will satisfy audiences. Meant to have a Blair Witch Project documentary style feel to it, The Visit is awkwardly scripted and filled with filmmaker jargon that is supposed to impress but is highly annoying. Loretta Jameson (Kathryn Hahn), whose husband left her and their children, hasn’t spoken to her parents, who live on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and are retired mental health counselors, for 15 years.

There has always been humor in his films — sometimes, unintentionally so — but this is his first true blend of fright and comedy, dosed with jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Bush was in the White House, Vanessa Carlton was on the radio, and you couldn’t tweet about how cool you thought “Signs” was because Twitter wasn’t even around yet.

Even though Ed Oxenbould (Tyler) and Olivia DeJonge (Becca) both impressed in their roles they fell victim to a story that’s just too polished to be perceived as a school documentary project. What more perfect arrangement could she make than to send her precocious children — tween Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger son, would-be hip-hop artist Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) aka DJ Diamond Stylus — to stay with their grandparents while Loretta and her current beau go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (hairy chest contest, anyone?). Notwithstanding the evidence of Shyamalan’s features since the pitch-perfect ”Sixth Sense,” hope endures among fans that lightning will strike twice. It’s a genuinely fun affair – let’s not write it off as a cult classic just yet – with the smirking air of a confidant and mischievous filmmaker. “No one cares about cinematic standards,” says one of The Visit’s budding auteurs.

The early 2000s seem like several lifetimes ago, especially for the director who soared early in his career with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and, yes, “Signs,” and then spiraled into creative free fall through the likes of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” But with the clever, cheeky and only slightly scary horror film “The Visit,” Shyamalan is partying like it’s 2000 all over again. Of course Shyamalan gets up to his old tricks and throws in an unexpected twist near the end – but by that time all interest in the Hansel and Gretel type plot is long forgotten. In the wake of bloated recent outings ”After Earth” and ”The Last Airbender,” that hope takes on a particular fervency with this modestly scaled return to straight-up genre fare. That anticipation will drive theatrical business for the feature, as will the lure of sheer horror fun, at least until word-of-mouth stems the box-office tide. Do we really still need deep dark wells, crab-walking old scary ladies, creepy basements and mental hospital references to scare the crap out of people?

The story involves a young, single mother – Kathryn Hahn, who wonderfully skirts around the film’s edges but is vital to the movie’s every thing – who reluctantly parcels off her two teenage children to her estranged parents. After embarking from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, Tyler and Becca arrive in the country, where Nana (a very game Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, doing a great Uncle Fester impression, I think) greet them like rock stars. At the old farmhouse, where Pop Pop keeps ducking into a mysterious shed (ruh-roh) and the trees are often enveloped in mist (redrum), Becca and Tyler are told to stay out of the basement and remain in their room after 9:30 p.m. From New York, off the kids go to rural Pennsylvania, where they take to the family farm of “Nana and Pop Pop” like Norman Rockwell took to oil paints and turkey dinners.

From that point on, the energy, warmth and nuance of her performance is reduced to intermittent Skype sessions — a crucial element to the story, but nonetheless a letdown for the viewer. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are excellent at creepy – better than Olivia DeJonge (as 15-year-old Rebecca Jamison) and Ed Oxenbould (as 13-year-old Tyler) are at being creeped out. Writer-director Shyamalan, who was catapulted to fame by his genuinely creepy and gripping 1999 film “The Sixth Sense,” has fallen on hard times lately with such works as “The Happening” and “After Earth.” “The Visit” isn’t a comeback, although DeJonge and especially Oxenbould, who are both Aussies, are quite good.

But there’s more to it than generosity; the camera-wielding siblings, budding auteur Becca in particular, sense an opportunity to make a documentary that uncovers the generational rift between their grandparents and their mother, who left the farm as a teenager, under circumstances she refuses to discuss. Since much of the film is from the viewpoint of her cameras, “The Visit” fits into the tiresome found-footage trend, but Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, unexpectedly injects it all with a wily sense of humor that works. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti captures the sense of a nonstop work in progress, seen through the lenses of the kids’ video cameras and laptop, with reality-style interviews, off-center framing and POV night footage … la “Blair Witch.” Shyamalan uses the various devices to tiring effect and without conjuring the requisite deep chills. Indeed, the children’s encounters with a staff member and former patient at the hospital where they do volunteer counseling have nothing but great things to say. They display a very real sense of sibling chemistry and an almost improvisatory sense of comic timing that make their interactions a joy to watch even if what’s going on around them is typical haunted-house stuff.

The result is almost always mechanical rather than exciting or funny, despite the actors’ layered performances – the self-aware kids, Dunagan’s otherworldly weirdness and McRobbie’s unnerving deadpan. Likewise, McRobbie (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Dunagan (“Just Like a Woman”) play the grandparents with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek tone without spilling over into overkill.

Within what’s essentially a single setting, Shyamalan and Alberti keep things visually diverse but cohesive, while Naaman Marshall’s clean farmhouse interiors avoid the common trap of overdesign. Shyamalan is known for his patented twist endings but, thankfully, he seems less concerned about it this time, instead focusing on telling a good, fun story in place of just conjuring a good gimmick. The movie is not without an emotional core, though: It’s Hahn’s mostly absent character, and although she’s called upon to deliver the heavy-handed moral of the story, she manages to make every moment she’s onscreen ring true.

The creeping out slowly builds to a twist that Bruce Willis and Chubby Checker would approve of, but the ultimate resolution has a bit of “that’s it?” tidiness to it. To borrow that conceit, a fair response to ”The Visit” might be ”Cher, Rihanna, Dolly Parton.” ”The Visit,” distributed by Universal Studios, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for ”sequences of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements.” Running time: 94 minutes.

Pop Pop tells the kids not to worry, she’s just “sundowning,” a real term referring to dementia patients reacting restlessly or with aggression when evening approaches. It delivers on creepiness, as well as humor, but how plausible would it be for these kids to stick around, even if they are in the middle of farmland? Shyamalan might be coming off a string of box office flops, including the big-budget “After Earth,” but fortunately, he is, at the core, a sensitive storyteller.

Those dealing with aging loved ones will no doubt recognize how dementia can ravage personality, so there are times when Nana and Pop Pop’s strange actions seem based in reality. “The Visit” doesn’t quite deliver a roundhouse punch. It’s interesting to note that Jason Blum, he of the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” franchises, came on board as “Visit” producer. Fans expecting the usual Blumhouse Productions fare might be disappointed: The film leans more on creepy than gross, as when Nana laughs hysterically while rocking in a chair, facing the wall.

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