Shyamalan scores modest comeback with creepy comedy 'The Visit'
Finally, M. Night Shyamalan writes and directs an intentionally funny movie.
"The Visit," a whimsical riff of the classic Hansel and Gretel fairy tale as filtered through "The Blair Witch Project," ends a severe dry spell for the Indian-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker.
His 2002 release "Signs" became his last solid contribution to the horror/fantasy/sci-fi genes before he plummeted into a string of disappointing and uninspired works: "The Village," "Lady in the Water," "The Happening," "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth."
With "The Visit," Shyamalan appears to be enjoying the storytelling process of movies again. He piles on the red herrings. He teases us sadistically and relentlessly. He supplies the expected unexpected jump-scares.
Then, he injects the big surprise. Humor.
Most of the fun stuff comes from preciously precocious 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and his older wannabe filmmaker sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge).
After a brief introduction shows their mom (Westchester native Kathryn Hahn) hinting that something bad happened on the day she last saw her parents years ago, Becca and Tyler head over to meet them for the first time and spend a week with them.
Kindly Nana (an extremely game Deanna Dunagan) and befuddled Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) make for an odd couple living in a remote, rural farmhouse.
Becca wants to shoot a documentary on Pop Pop and Nana and take it back to Mom. The grandparents agree, sort of. The moment Becca asks Nana about "that day" their mom left, it's freak-out time.
"I'm looking for visual tension!" Becca tells Tyler. She doesn't need to wait long.
It quickly becomes apparent that something's not quite right with the oldsters. Nana spills something on Becca's computer. Now her Skype camera won't work.
Then, creepy scratching sounds and thumping noises start up right outside their bedroom door after 9:30 p.m., the oldsters' beddy-by time.
Tyler becomes curious about the shed where Pop Pop spends a lot of time. What's in there, anyway?
"Is it dead bodies?" he ponders for his camera lens.
For this "Visit," Shyamalan employs my least favorite narrative device, the "found footage" gimmick that mandates the movie must be shot with recording devices in the movie itself.
Two movies have accomplished this masterfully, Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust" and the aforementioned "Blair Witch Project."
Shyamalan, with cinematographer Maryse Alberti, realistically captures what a teenager's doc might look like. The editing tends to be jumpy and the framing is askew with tops of heads lopped off by the film frame.
But because Becca knows something about moviemaking, we get picturesque establishing shots of rural Pennsylvania, something ordinary kids might not think to shoot.
Still, by the end of this "Visit," the found-footage device reveals its shortcomings as the kids cling to their cameras through the most ridiculous scenarios in which their need to shoot surpasses their flee-or-fight survival instincts.
Becca and Tyler are both way too sophisticated and verbally adroit for their characters. (Did Diablo Cody do a rewrite on this?)
Tyler, a germaphobe, fancies himself a master rapper, and his white-bread interpretation of the art, with obligatory misogynistic lyrics, is so amusing that Shyamalan drafts him for an encore performance. Too much?
"The Visit" may be flawed, but viewed as a comedy, it traffics more in archetypical characters than realistic ones, and goes for the joke or the jolt over the drama.
When Nana asks Becca to climb all the way into the oven to clean it, is there anyone not mentally shouting, "Don't go in there!"?
All family visits have downsides. For Shyamalan, "The Visit" puts him back in the game, just not on top of it.
"The Visit"★ ★ ★
Starring: Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Kathryn Hahn, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language, nudity, violence. 94 minutes