Many horror movies, like “Paranormal Activity” and this year’s “The Gift,” follow the same formula. The protagonists first encounter something slightly unusual and brush it off. With each passing day, stranger things begin to happen, and it becomes impossible to dismiss the series of events. By the last act, the film has built up a steady growth of subtle threats until a climax of violence and general insanity.
“The Visit,” the newest horror movie written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”), sticks to this common schematic, bearing resemblance to “Paranormal Activity” both with its found footage style and its method of juxtaposing eerie nighttime shots and bright
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morning scenes. In “Paranormal Activity,” morning scenes allowed the viewer to breathe a sigh of relief after the high tension of the night. In “The Visit,” unfortunately, each morning signals another tedious wait until the next burst of plot movement. While the thrills of “Paranormal Activity” were enough to inspire dread for the next night, the thrills of “The Visit” spark little suspense.
The film follows young amateur filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge, “Hiding”) and her obnoxious little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) as they spend a week with their grandparents. Becca and Tyler’s mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn, “Transparent”), had a falling out with her parents after a fight years ago. Becca, filming the visit documentary-style, hopes to find an "elixir" — some sign of forgiveness that will lead Paula to reconcile with her parents.
The emotional crux of the film rests on Becca and Tyler’s attempts to help their mother, all the while agonizing over the father who left them years ago. In the middle of the film, the horror element is dropped almost entirely in favor of a sequence where Becca and Tyler conduct talking head interviews with each other. Tyler, after spending most of the movie cracking wise jokes and rapping terribly, bashfully admits he feels responsible for their father's abandonment. In Becca’s interview, Tyler calls her out for an insecurity she has never mentioned. It’s a pair of scenes that carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, and in a sea of talentless child actors, DeJonge and Oxenbould create a sibling relationship that feels authentic.
Unfortunately, the ostensible primary plot of the movie, involving Becca’s quest for the "elixir," is more of a glorified subplot in service of a fairly by-the-numbers horror story. In between cheap jump scares, there aren’t many genuine thrills to go around. For most of the movie, Shyamalan makes the interesting choice to ground most of the grandparents’ creepy moments in problems many elderly people run into instead of demonic malevolence. Nana (Deanna Dunagan, “August: Osage County”) stumbles around the house in the middle of the night in confusion, showing symptoms of dementia. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, “Lincoln”) has a stash of soiled diapers hidden away as a result of his incontinence. There is an element of creepiness to the sight of Nana projectile vomiting in the middle of the night and the shot of Pop Pop sticking a gun into his own mouth, but it rarely feels dangerous. If the problem is simply that these people are getting old and confused, what physical threat do they actually pose?
Luckily, there’s a Shyamalan twist waiting to kick off the third act that shows the true danger of the scenario, and once it’s revealed, the film finally kicks it into high gear, descending into all-out lunacy. Finally, the elements of dark humor that the beginning of the movie hinted at come out in full force. In one inspired scene, Becca and Tyler sit and nervously play a game of Yahtzee with their grandparents, and there’s no pretending that it’s just a normal family game night. It’s a marvelous scene, both hilarious and tense, and every scene thereafter combines those conflicting tones brilliantly.
There’s a time and place for atmosphere and slow build-ups, but “The Visit” shows that, like action, horror can often be at its most fun when the story stops stalling and the filmmakers start having fun. The film ends on a solid note, but it’s difficult not to wish less time was spent on “old people problems” and more on the true horror beneath the surface.