A gripping horror tale lurks at the edges of “The Visit,” M. Night Shyamalan’s foray into found-footage filmmaking.
But the erstwhile Oscar nominee continues along the course of his recent setbacks (“The Happening,” “The Last Airbender”). “The Visit” is no “The Sixth Sense.” In fact, it’s got no sense at all.
In this misguided thriller, teen siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are excited to meet their grandparents for the first time. Their mom (Kathryn Hahn) left home under hazy circumstances at age 19 and hasn’t spoken with her parents since. But Becca wants to document the experience for a film while her younger brother appears simply happy to show off his rapping skills to the camera.
With Mom occupied by a Royal Caribbean cruise, the children find themselves isolated with these strangers for five days.
“They could be scrapbookers,” Tyler fears.
Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) instead likes to chop wood, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) enjoys cooking in their secluded Pennsylvania farmhouse. She also scratches at walls naked and stabs doorways with a kitchen knife. This is why Pop Pop insists the kids go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and not come out of their room until morning.
Becca attributes the conduct to “normal old-age problems.” Pop Pop calls it “sundowning” (the original, superior title of the picture), a legitimate disorder that causes abrupt changes in behavior at night.
Is this actually about dementia or something else?
That “something else” is what powers “The Visit” through its creepy first half. An intense early scene finds the teens filming a game of hide-and-seek in the crawlspaces beneath the house. Then an uninvited guest begins to play. Between the two-camera recordings, the odd location, the uncharacteristic daylight setting and the never-fully-seen third participant, the sequence feels alive with menace. And it’s plausible.
These qualities fade with each new setup, as Shyamalan opts for jump scares, red herrings and abrupt tonal shifts while the movie ambles toward its telegraphed conclusion.
Can’t fault the guy for wanting to inject some humor into the mix, but the repeated sight of a lisping youngster who freestyle-raps racy songs sure kills the mood. It also confirms Shyamalan doesn’t get the music, wardrobe and general cultural touchstones of the kids he’s trying to depict.
It might be amusing that Oxenbould’s irritating character decides to replace his curse words with the names of female pop stars. “Shakira,” he exclaims when suffering a mild scare. But he later shouts “Sarah McLachlan.” Really? That’s someone a 13-year-old rapper might conjure?
Fellow Australian DeJonge fares better, commanding key moments with facial expressions and body language. If only she didn’t have to spout so much of Shyamalan’s exposition-heavy dialogue or film-school references.
Based on statements he made on Twitter, Shyamalan claimed he assembled three different cuts of this small-scale project: “pure comedy,” “pure horror” and one that “fell somewhere in between.”
Should have revisited that “pure horror” option.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
TRY TRY AGAIN
In contrast to his first four studio movies, which were all substantial hits, starting with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s last four films have been a series of misfires: “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.”
He told The New York Times he learns from his mistakes, drawing a comparison to David McCullough’s new biography on the Wright Brothers:
“The hundred failures that existed for them weren’t failures,” he said. “They would crash, and they would say: ‘That was great. I know what went wrong.’”