Olivia DeJonge and Deanna Dunagan in The Visit (Universal Pictures)
The years since The Sixth Sense have not been kind to M. Night Shyamalan. Despite box-office success with Unbreakable and Signs, the man best known for shocking final-act twists has released films to increasing disdain from both critics and audiences. The Visit may not surprise audiences in the same way that The Sixth Sense did back in 1999, but it is still a vast improvement over After Earth and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan is back to what he does best, placing young children in peril and scaring audiences without resorting to gore.
Although The Visit is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense, the film is not a complete throwback to Shyamalan’s career peak over 15 years ago. To modernize the story, Shyamalan teamed up with Jason Blum, the producer behind Paranormal Activity and Insidious, to make a film reminiscent of the found-footage genre that has dominated horror over the past several years. The Visit differs in several significant ways, however: It is a faux-documentary filmed by two children and has a number of comedic elements that make it seem lighter than most of the horror films that Blum has produced.
The Visit tells the story of two children (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who make a visit to the rural Pennsylvania farm of the grandparents they have never met while their mother (Kathryn Hahn of “Parks and Recreation”), who has been estranged from her parents since she was a teenager, takes a cruise with her new boyfriend. The two children film every moment with the grandparents that they come to know, only to learn that the elderly couple is stranger and more disturbing than they could possibly imagine.
Peter McRobbie, who is such a New York acting veteran that he has appeared in eight Woody Allen films and four different “Law & Order” series, plays the grandfather, while Deanna Dunagan, the Broadway actress who won a Tony for the musical “Next to Normal” plays the grandmother. While neither actor is a household name, both accomplished performers balance between making the couple seem warm and terrifying. Dunagan, in particular, is quite good. She seems like a sturdier Blythe Danner, more likely to bake a cake than mix a martini, as Danner’s characters seem so ready to do.
Part of the terror of The Visit comes not from anything supernatural or unexpected, but from the indignities of old age. Whether it’s the secret stashing of adult diapers or the bouts of dementia that the grandparents endure, the behavior frightens the two young children, who have never dealt with how the minds and bodies of the elderly betray them in often frightening ways.
Shyamalan, as always, is sensitive to the emotional lives of these children. Neither DeJonge nor Oxenbould quite reach the depths that Haley Joel Osment did when Shyamalan guided him to an Oscar nomination for The Sixth Sense, but both performers are effective anchors for the film. The Visit does, at times, employ Oxenbould too often as comic relief. Given that Eminem has sold millions of albums since before Oxenbould was born, the novelty of a suburban white kid rapping is a trope that deserves to be put to rest.
There are two questions that accompany an M. Night Shyamalan film: is there a twist, and is the film any good? Audiences should discover the answer to the first themselves, but for the first time in years, the answer to the second question is yes.
In theaters Sept. 11
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