Uber-fans of the prolific director’s early films have been hopelessly believing he’ll one day make a good movie again. We thought “The Happening” might be a return to the haunting thrills of “The Sixth Sense.” We were wrong. We thought “The Last Airbender” might be a career resurrection by way of the fantasy genre. We were very wrong. We thought “After Earth” might be a career resurrection by way of Will Smith. More wrong. How many more chances does he have, we asked? Turns out he only needed one, because his latest film “The Visit” is almost everything we’ve been waiting for from the once-wunderkind. A simple thriller that’s more familial drama and comedy than horror or science fiction, the grandparents-gone-wild story is hilarious, touching, and yes, occasionally horrifying.
Utilizing the found-footage gimmick to its fullest extent, it’d be easy to write off “The Visit” as merely another cash grab following a fad to its grave, but Night has a trick up his sleeve that makes the whole thing work: the child protagonists are producing an investigative documentary. The subject? Their single mother’s upbringing and the major rift that led to estrangement, until now. Grandma and Grandpa have come calling for an extended weekend with their never-before-seen grandchildren, and while Mother remains incommunicado, granddaughter Becka and grandson Tyler insist on meeting them. So visit them they do, on a remote Pennsylvania farm where Nana bakes cookies and Pop-Pop chops wood. Naturally, it’s all a little uncomfortable, what with the cameras and the constant rapping. At 13, Tyler fancies himself a ladies man and YouTube sensation, turning completely unrelated lyrics into hysterically unremarkable songs. At 15, Becka fancies herself a filmmaker, pretentiously dishing out lingo like any kid does when they first discover their passion. They’re still reeling from their own estrangement with an absentee Dad, a man who whisked away young Mom from her parents only to whisk away another woman many years later, but not before fathering the two of them of course. The documentary is their makeshift therapy, sometimes quite literally, such as when Becka interviews Tyler about their Dad. These are dramatic reprieves, sobering reminders that the characters on screen are grappling with serious emotional trauma, and Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge have sensational chemistry through it all, warts and all. Whether they’re climbing on each other’s nerves or consoling one another amid the bizarre goings-on at the farm, you never doubt their bond. And sure enough, things do get bizarre, Nana and Pop-Pop beginning as possibly benevolent codgers with a few loose screws and developing into figures far more sinister. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie convey their quirks without going over the top and, more importantly, they manage by the end to turn two seemingly harmless old people into two truly terrifying individuals.
M. Night’s aiming for more than scares, as evidenced by the high laugh quotient and his penchant for quiet long shots (a storytelling device he hasn’t used since “Lady in the Water”), evoking melancholy between the sibling shenanigans and senior mysteries. Resulting tonal schisms abound, and whether Tyler’s character charms or annoys will depend on your patience for obnoxiously pubescent boyhood, but it’s overshadowed by the sheer entertainment value on display. Believe it or not, “The Visit” is a clear return to form for Shyamalan. He’s gone back to his roots, turning a low-key, slow-burn drama about family anguish into a nearly laugh-a-minute romp that scares you just enough to earn the moniker of horror movie.