In his best films (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” “Unbreakable”), writer-director M. Night Shyamalan was able to wring suspense and dread out of simple things: a shape beneath a bedsheet, a door being rattled, a glass of water. In “The Happening,” his widely reviled apocalyptic thriller, the filmmaker built up considerable tension almost entirely through visuals (sunlight pouring through a tear in the vinyl top of a convertible, a shot of trees swaying in the wind).
Shyamalan is so good at priming the stage that when the end of the film doesn’t deliver a large-enough wallop, you come away disappointed. Audiences (and most critics) pounced on “The Happening” because the movie’s big reveal — what was making people in the northeast U.S. suddenly kill themselves? — couldn’t live up to expectations, and practically everyone shredded “The Village” for being a feature-length tease to a twist ending that didn’t merit the buildup.
But “The Visit,” Shyamalan’s return to horror after disastrous forays into fantasy and sci-fi (“After Earth,” “The Last Airbender,” “Lady in the Water”), can’t even get the setup right. This low-budget ($5 million) entry into the found-footage genre centers on a weeklong visit by a pair of teenage siblings to the home of the grandparents they’ve never met. Fifteen-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge), who wants to be a filmmaker, and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who fancies himself a rap artist, are eager to meet their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) even though their mom (Kathryn Hahn), who is divorced, warns them that she hasn’t seen or spoken to her parents in 19 years, after she left home after an Incident She Can’t Discuss.
Most parents would be at least a tiny bit concerned about shipping off their kids to spend a week with people who are essentially strangers. But Mom is going on a much-needed cruise with her current boyfriend. So what if her parents live in such a remote area they don’t even have cellphone service? Thanks to the magic of Hollywood (aka a cavernous plot hole), the kids will still have Wi-Fi reception and be able to Skype with Mom while she’s off partying on the love boat. What could possibly go wrong?
At first, seemingly nothing. Upon arriving, the siblings are greeted by warm, doting grandparents who seem a bit flighty and have peculiar house rules but are otherwise harmless. The central gimmick of “The Visit” — one of the elements that gradually makes the movie insufferable — is that Becca is filming the visit in the hopes of getting her grandparents to forgive their mom on-camera, then turn the footage into a documentary. She’s smart enough to pack two cameras (one for her brother), which frees Shyamalan from being stranded to a single character’s point of view, even though this requires the kids to a) always be filming, even when they’re crawling away from monsters, or b) always be sure to drop the camera in a convenient spot that will capture the action even when they’re not holding it.
“Paranormal Activity’s” Jason Blum is one of the producers of “The Visit,” which might explain why Shyamalan proceeded with the found-footage gimmick, even though the picture would have been radically better if it had been filmed in a conventional manner. The first-person technique adds nothing but distraction and irritation, and the cinematography by Maryse Alberti, who also shot “The Wrestler,” is way too polished and sumptuous to pass for homemade. Even worse, “The Visit” is only half a horror movie: The other half is intentionally humorous, some of it lowbrow, most of it so broad and grating it makes you grind your teeth. Here is another genre Shyamalan should stay away from: comedy.
But what ultimately sinks “The Visit” is that Shyamalan, who had previously come up with new and ingenious ways to frighten us, resorts to familiar jump-scare tactics in which things suddenly pop into the frame, accompanied by loud sound effects. There’s no real sense of danger, no menace: Something is clearly wrong with Nana and Pop-Pop, but even as their actions grow darker and more worrisome, the kids continue to play along. By the time Becca is squeezing into an oven — all the way inside — so she can clean it for Nana, you start thinking she deserves to stay locked in there until she grows a few IQ points.
“The Visit” has its moments, like all of these studio horror pictures do, but the climactic 15 minutes are particularly disappointing, because Shyamalan doesn’t even have a clever switcharoo this time.
☆ out of 5
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Rated: PG-13, for vulgar language, brief nudity, disturbing thematic material including terror and violence.