Sunday, September 13, 2015

"The Visit"

 3.5 / 5 

The Visit begins with a situation that must be universally uncomfortable: Staying at the house of a friend or relative for the first time, it dawns on you that you don't really know them all that well.  The lights go out at bedtime, and you start to hear noises, maybe some whispers.  Those nocturnal activities that are normal for your host can be disquieting to you.

That's the situation teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) find themselves in as they start on a weeklong visit to the home of their estranged grandparents.  It seems their mom (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents long before the kids were born, but Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) want to meet their flesh and blood at long last, and to see the house where Mom grew up.

The timing works.  Mom's about to head off on a Caribbean beach cruise with her new boyfriend, so the offer of a week in the cold, snowy woods of central Pennsylvania seems perfectly timed.

Off they go, Becca, a budding filmmaker, with a camera in her hand -- she senses that there may be reparations to be made during the visit, and she's certain that the healing of multiple generations of one family could make a terrific documentary.  Her 14-year-old brother may be less helpful, but he's still intrigued by the idea, especially if it gives him time to rap on camera.

It's dull out there in rural Pennsylvania, but Nana and Pop Pop plan to do their best to show the kids a good time during the Monday-through-Saturday stay.  Really, there aren't even all that many rules in the house -- just two, actually: After 9:30 p.m., stay in bed. Don't open the door, no matter what you might hear.  Don't go snooping around the house at night.  And don't head down into the basement.

If they sound a little like the warnings Billy Peltzer was given in Gremlins, that's not entirely unintentional, as The Visit blends humor with scares for a result that feels very much like that earlier film.  Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan never seems to take any of it too seriously (unlike his deadly dull "thrillers" The Village and The Happening), and the mostly teen-aged audience I saw it with seemed to be having a blast, spending far more time laughing than screaming.

The Visit isn't as much a scare-fest as it is a mystery tinged with thrills.  It becomes clear pretty much right away that there's something very off about Nana and Pop Pop, and Shyamalan has both the guts and the filmmaking prowess to set one of the movie's earliest squirm-inducing moments in the middle of the day, as the kids discover Mom's old hide-and-seek spot.

But what is going on, exactly?  Are Nana and Pop Pop just, as they insist, getting old?  If it's as simple as that, how come the goings-on are increasingly disturbing?  And why is it that when Nana spilled some biscuit batter on Becca's computer, it only damaged the camera?  It makes for some pretty one-sided video chats with Mom out there on that cruise ship, but she reassures the kids that her parents were hippies -- that should explain everything.

As the days progress (each day is flashed on screen in huge letters, an homage to Kubrick's The Shining, another move about being stuck with unreliable parental figures), the kids are increasingly disturbed, and committed to getting to the bottom of things.

The Visit is a compact little film, clocking in at just over an hour and a half, but as with most Shyamalan films things don't always move with haste.  Despite the brevity, The Visit repeats itself frequently, while managing to bury some of the most salient clues.  When the final solution is revealed (it's a Shyamalan film, of course there's a "twist"), it's less of an "a-ha" moment than a jolt; sure, it makes sense, but there's no way we should've seen it coming if only we had been more attentive.

The movie's four central performers go a long way to offsetting the movie's minor flaws, most particularly DeJonge and Oxenbould.  They make a tired old device like "found footage" seem fresh and interesting, and they bring welcome dimension and depth to characters that are surprisingly well-rounded.  It's rare indeed to find a thriller works as a character study, but this one almost does.

What The Visit lacks in scares it makes up for in chills, and it compensates for some groan-inducing moments with humor and flair.  The Visit is in keeping with Shyamalan's pernicious little Devil, and might not qualify as one of his major works; but given the quality of his "major" works since The Sixth Sense, perhaps that's for the best.

Viewed Sept. 12, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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