Near the beginning of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, on a train en route to a weeklong stay with grandparents they’ve never met, 15-year-old Becca (Olivia De Jonge) and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) discuss the worst possible scenarios. “What if they’re scrapbookers?” “What if they think boy bands are cute?” Shotguns, butcher knives, and inexplicable projectile vomiting don’t factor into their equations, because why would they?
Alas, the vacation is not the pleasant, convivial generation-bridger the kids hope for, but it’s the nature of this inevitable descent into madness that makes The Visit such a miraculous discovery. Transitioning from sheer horror to absurdist comedy to tragic family diary often within the same scene, Shyamalan’s unpredictable genre-bender is his most inspired creation since the early 2000s. It’s almost good enough to make you forgive his past decade’s worth of box-office poison.
Part of that inspiration is embedded in the movie’s form, which conjures the untarnished ardency of first-time filmmaking while revitalizing the moribund found-footage formula. The Visit is shot as a documentary directed by Becca, and the only images we see are the ones captured through the two cameras she and Tyler brought on the trip.
The illusion of artlessness is paramount to most found-footage horror flicks, but thanks to his avatar of Becca, Shyamalan places artifice front and center, micromanaging his images through her, and re-shooting “reality” when the result doesn’t comply as planned. The visual self-indulgences of budding auteurs have rarely felt as endearing as they do under the meta-direction of Becca and Tyler.
Becca’s documentary aspires to be something along the lines of Jonathan Couette’s therapeutic Tarnation — a cheaply shot personal excavation into the fractured past between their grandparents, Doris and John (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), and their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn), to whom they haven’t spoken in decades. These best-laid plans soon fall away, partly because the grandparents are freakishly tight-lipped about the past, but mostly because Becca’s family drama gradually transforms into a horror film.
Strangeness pervades the isolated country house, especially after the elderly couple’s early witching hour of 9:30 p.m. Doris paces the living room in a trance, vomiting uncontrollably. Nakedly, she scampers the house like a trapped animal, claws at locked doors, and laughs hysterically at a blank wall. John lashes out at strangers he believes are stalking him, and disappears for lengthy, eerily silent sessions in his shed.
Brilliantly, there are explanations for all of these occurrences, at least at first: They fall under the purview of getting older, from dementia to senility to incontinence. The film’s blunt revelations may border on ageism, but they represent narratively exhilarating teases, promising supernatural phenomenona and delivering all-natural diseases of aging in their stead.
And besides, that’s not all, folks. This being a classic Shyamalan film, there’s another Twilight Zone twist to savor, perfectly surprising in its execution but adequately forecast for viewers paying close attention.
The Visit will no doubt be classified as a horror film, but its more adventurous label is as a comedy. While risible Shyamalan titles like Lady in the Water and The Happening used humor as the self-effacing crutches holding up wobbly thriller premises, the comedy in The Visit is fully integrated and expertly performed by his two young stars — supplementing rather than undercutting the terror.
For audiences in tune to its cultish wavelength, The Visit is one of the funniest films of the year, and for perhaps the first time in Shyamalan’s career, the laughs are 100 percent intentional.
THE VISIT. Director: M. Night Shyamalan; Cast: Olivia De Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie and Kathryn Hahn; Distributor: Universal