Paying a visit to your grandparents when you’re a kid should be one of the best memories of your childhood. But what if you just knew that something was, well, a little bit odd and off-kilter about them – and that that oddness could possibly be hiding something downright sinister?
That’s the delicious premise of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s delicious new scarefest “The Visit”, one of the year’s most innovative and entertaining movies. I guarantee you’ll be moved at moments, be laughing hard at others, and be thoroughly on the edge of your seat throughout nearly the entire movie. It’s one of the year’s best, in my opinion.
The story follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a girl in her early teens who volunteers to go visit her mom’s parents for the first time, along with her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) so that their mom (Kathryn Hahn) can enjoy a getaway cruise with her boyfriend and hopefully come back engaged. The children and mom had been abandoned by their dad for a younger woman several years ago, causing deep emotional trauma for the kids that the movie reveals in pieces throughout as they finally learn to deal with it in a healthy way.
Becca is shooting the weeklong visit with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) as a homemade video documentary gift for her mom, and the movie is shown through the point of view of the camera. This approach of “found footage” has been overused in the past 15 years, but here the actual writer-director M. Night Shyamalan finds countless inventive and visually stunning ways to employ the tactic to expert effect.
The visit starts pleasantly enough, though the grandparents are extremely out-of-touch with modern society and technology. But as the days – and especially nights – go by, they realize that Nana and Pop Pop are prone to extremely strange behavior after 9:30 p.m. each night, and they start to investigate the strange noises from around the house despite being warned not to leave their rooms after that time.
The movie has an ingenious balance of scares and laughs throughout, as the kids and the audience are left to wonder if the grandparents are just odd, or flat-out dangerous, and why they act in such strange fashion.
SPOILER ALERT: There is a shocking twist, as in the best of Shyamalan’s movies, which we won’t give away here. However, the climax has two disturbing implied (unseen yet vivid in the imagination) moments: a child stabbing an elderly person to death in self-defense, and another child having to kill another elderly person in self-defense by smashing a refrigerator door repeatedly into their head. END SPOILER
“The Visit” is a great return to form for Shyamalan, who was being hailed as the new Hitchcock-meets-Spielberg after his early run of classics (“The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, “Signs”) before he tumbled into one of the worst career-losing streaks in modern times. The movie constantly keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, wondering if the kids are in danger, then how much danger, then how the kids will get out of that danger.
The only real problem with the movie is in its climax, which is hidden within the spoiler alert above. Here, the kids are in so much peril and are forced to find such unpleasant ways out of danger, that the movie almost loses viewer sympathy before coming back strongly with its aftermath.
The fact that the movie has sparse foul language, implies most of its violence, and has no sex – though the rear nudity shown from Nana in her deranged state is a momentary shock that’s also played for awkward laughs – means that any adult can enjoy this without much caution. And is it dateworthy? Absolutely! Who doesn’t want to be scared, have some big laughs, and still come away emotionally touched in the end?
It also has a beautiful denouement in which the kids’ mother comes to terms with the sad end she had to her relationship with her parents 15 years before, and inspires the filmmaking daughter to also forgive her own heartache with a family member. This message of family and forgiveness is a powerful and valuable asset to the movie, making “The Visit” well worth a visit to the theater on scary, funny and touching levels.