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The Visit Features a Twist, but Not Much Else Screams Shyamalan

<i>The Visit</i> Features a Twist, but Not Much Else Screams Shyamalan

DVD Release Date: January 5, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: September 11, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language)
Genre: Horror
Run Time: 94 min.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge

"Go big or go home," states one movie theater chain's marketing campaign. Such a slogan may fit when it comes to film exhibition and the theatrical experience, but in terms of budget and scale in conceptualizing and producing a movie, bigger isn't always better. Sometimes less is more.

Nowhere is that more true than when it comes to horror films. While big-budget special effects (in this genre or others) can be spectacular, they're more often underwhelming, while lower-budget horror films, heavier on suggestion than on CGI or costly makeup, prove more memorable.

Producer Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions have built their reputation on lower-budget horror films that bring in big bucks relative to their small production costs. Movies like Paranormal Activity, Sinister and The Purge were big hits commercially, widely admired for their effectiveness in eliciting real chills.

To keep costs in check, these productions rarely feature big-name actors or well-known directors. That makes The Visit, directed by onetime industry darling M. Night Shyamalan, different from most Blumhouse productions. Shyamalan's reputation—golden after The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs—started falling long ago, and after the reviled The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), the filmmaker needed a project to help restore his credibility. Blumhouse stepped in to back the Shyamalan-written The Visit, a found-footage story that fits well in the Blumhouse universe but is a disappointment for those of us who were hoping for something that showed off more of Shyamalan's distinctive style.

After their mom (Kathryn Hahn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) acquiesces to her estranged parents' request to meet their grandchildren, Becca (Olivia Dejonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) travel to see the Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) they've never known. Documenting the visit is budding filmmaker Becca—hence the found-footage conceit—who starts her filming by asking Mom about the reason for the trip. Mom explains that, as a young student, she fell in love with a teacher, ran off with him and had two children, all against the wishes of her mother and father. Her parents were vindicated when the teacher left mom, who had to raise Becca and Tyler on her own.

The kids show up to Nana and Pop Pop's excited, but quickly sense that all is not well with the older pair. Pop Pop insists that bedtime for everyone is 9:30, but the noises Becca and Tyler can hear outside their room later in the evening indicate that their grandparents are up and moving around. What are they up to?

The kids will try to find out, of course, with camera in tow, leading to some effective scares, if nothing too unexpected or innovative. We've seen these kind of jump-scares a million times before, and while some viewers may be content with Shyamalan not rewriting the playbook for films like this, I, for one, had hoped for more incorporation of the director's visual style—something to set The Visit apart from other Blumhouse productions. On that level, the movie is a letdown, although it does have Shyamalan's best-known trademark—a twist that upends much of what we've seen. However, the effect of the twist is fleeting.

More surprising is an admirable message about forgiveness that emerges late in the film, although it plays like an afterthought rather than something integral to the way the story pans out. Still, that message gives The Visit some depth it wouldn't otherwise have, and in light of the general effectiveness of the film's scares, it's something that could put viewers in a forgiving mood themselves.

Whether audiences leave The Visit buzzing about its jump-inducing moments, plot twist or message, their conversations probably won't last too long. This Visit is a quick, mostly forgettable trip, but if it helps M. Night Shyamalan journey back toward respectability—and back into audiences' good graces—this critic will count that as a good thing.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: God's name taken in vain; Mom tells her kids that her parents once cursed at her; scatological terms and some teenage sexual innuendo; Tyler's raps include sexual and misogynistic lyrics; Tyler substitutes pop stars' names for curse words; some foul language; "What the hell?"
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: None
  • Sex/Nudity: Mom says she fell in love with a teacher and had children with him, despite her parents' caution that he had a wandering eye; grandmother's bare backside is seen
  • Violence/Crime: Menacing behavior by kids' grandparents builds throughout the film, leading to several scary moments and threatening situations; a person is seen hanging from a noose; decomposed corpses seen; the mom remembers striking her mother and being struck by her father
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: The kids agree to visit their grandparents so that their mom can have a getaway with her current beau; a message about the importance of forgiveness

Publication date: September 10, 2015