Early in The Sixth Sense, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s widely celebrated horror film, there’s a scene that gave me several sleepless nights. Haley Joel Osmond, starring in on the great child performances, is playing Cole, the young boy whose “gift” is that he can see ghosts. Late one night, Cole encounters a young boy who suddenly appears and tells him, “I’ll show you where my dad keeps his gun.” The boy turns around and, as he walks away, reveals that the back of his head is gone from a massive gunshot wound. Few movies have petrified me like that.
In The Visit, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s return to the horror genre and his first “found footage” entry, a visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s house becomes a diabolical experience for two especially unlucky grandchildren. Kathryn Hahn stars as a free-spirited mother who sends her reluctant kids, Becca (Olivia De Jonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, who played the title role in last year’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) to visit her estranged parents. When we meet Nana and Pop Pop (played by Tony winner Deanna Dunagan and veteran character actor Peter McRobbie), they’re initially pleasant and sweet. Until Pop Pop’s insistence that they don’t leave their room after 9:30. From there, things get increasingly spookier.
Let me get to the point: I haven’t forgiven Shyamalan for The Happening and After Earth but this is a big step up. In fact, it’s genuinely frightening and has a third act surprise that earns its collective shudders.
In recent years, Shyamalan has floundered with movies that descended into unintentional camp. Here, he appears to have anticipated potential audience snickering towards his premise and has fashioned this as a pitch-black comedy. The one-liners come often and are surprisingly welcome, diffusing some of the most unbearably tense moments.
McRobbie wisely underplays but Dunagan digs deep and is deliciously scary. Shyamalan has less luck with the kids, particularly Oxenbould, who comes across less like a real child and more of a sitcom-ready quipster. I rooted for the youngsters by default, but I never liked them.
This is not Shyamalan’s complete return to form, as it lacks the confidence, sustained vision, tone and narrative control of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village. The biggest misstep in The Visit are the scenes where the boy raps. Oxenbould’s lyrical rhymes bring to mind David Faustino’s “Grandmaster B” days on Married With Children…
But Shyamalan succeeds in creating an atmosphere both tranquil and nightmarish. He sticks to the found footage format intelligently, almost-never adding music and maintaining the angle that we’re watching Becca’s documentary-in-the-making. There’s a potential subtext on generational gaps but the goal is to elicit scares. In that way alone, this is an effective horror film.
As can be expected, there’s a big twist at the end and it’s a great one. While I recall a Tales From the Crypt episode with a similar reveal, the whopper Shyamalan unveils is gasp-inducing and scarier upon reflection. Once the truth is in the open, Shyamalan goes for the throat, with a climactic sequence that pushes the PG-13 rating as far as it will allow.
But it goes without saying that none of this is appropriate for children of any age. I doubt there are any stats to indicate whether this could do for visiting grandparents what Jaws did to beach attendance. Still, if adults want to keep their kids excited about spending a weekend with their grandma and grandpa, I recommend they keep them away from this movie.