After a series of work-for-hire gigs devoid of the auteurist touches that initially made him a cinematic phenomenon, M. Night Shyamalan, with “The Visit,” rediscovers his mojo and delivers his best effort in years. Moreover, he does so by turning to, of all things, that most tiresome of subgenres: the found-footage horror film. In theory, it’s hardly a natural fit, as Shyamalan’s most acclaimed films were marked by long takes, methodical camerawork, and a deathly pallor — stylistic signatures far removed from the jittery camcorder visuals of “The Blair Witch Project” and its ilk. And yet with his latest, the “The 6th Sense” and “Signs” director proves adept at wielding such aesthetics to creative, unsettling ends, all for a story about a 15-year-old girl and her younger brother going to stay with their mother’s estranged parents for the first time.
For aspiring filmmaker Becca (Olivia De Jonge), that weeklong vacation affords her an opportunity to hone her non-fiction directing chops for a project about her mother’s origins — and, hopefully, about bridging the gap between her mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) and the parents whom, because of a terrible incident she won’t discuss, she hasn’t seen since before her kids were born. For Becca’s brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), on the other hand, it’s a chance to pester his sister with his hip-hop rhymes, all of which are done in a comical lisp and punctuated with a concluding, emphatic “Ho!” Beneath their cheery demeanor, though, lurks still-fresh misery over their father’s decision to leave their mother — and them — in order to start a new life with a younger woman in California.
Those raw wounds, as well as Paula’s own unhappiness over her falling-out with her parents, are the foundation upon which “The Visit” builds its set-up, and Shyamalan allows details about his character’s hang-ups and fixations to slowly emerge amidst footage (all shot by Becca and Tyler) of the two making their way to Masonville, Pennsylvania, where they’re joyously greeted by Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) with a welcome banner and homemade cookies. Soon, they’re getting used to cell phone reception-challenged life on their grandparents’ farm, as well as becoming increasingly curious about a number of strange occurrences, such as Nana puking uncontrollably in the dead of night, Pop-Pop making mysterious outings to a shed, and both grandparents’ requirement that their guests get to bed — and stay in their room, regardless of the weird noises emanating from the hallway — at 9:30pm.
It’s difficult to ignore that something strange is amiss, and given that this is a film written by Shyamalan, the story’s impending twist soon becomes the unavoidable elephant in the room. Shyamalan, however, shrewdly hides that surprise behind Nana and Pop-Pop’s habit of explaining away each other’s strange behavior as just the negative consequences of advanced age. For long stretches, it’s not wholly clear if “The Visit” is really just one big horror-movie misdirection, and that it’s revelation will be that it’s a portrait of adolescent misconceptions about growing old. Nonetheless, as creepy incidents begin to pile up, including a hidden-camera sleepwalking bit that outdoes just about every jump scare in the Paranormal Activity playbook, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Shyamalan is using his found-footage conceit — and viewers’ knowledge of its tropes — to create confusion and unease.
The director’s interest in employing well-known storytelling methods to heighten anxiety is underscored by Becca’s intermittent, pretentious talk about documentary ethics and techniques. Self-consciously addressing what it’s up to and then still managing to elicit routine suspense, “The Visit” boasts an impressive formal confidence. Unable to rely on his usual cinematographic hallmarks, Shyamalan seems energized by the freedom of using his unstable imagery to generate dread. His shaky-cam is consistently rooted in his characters’ behavior so that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick, and it captures a series of terrifying sights in both things-scurrying-across-the-frame flashes and static, patient compositions.
As befitting a film about two kids’ ominous trip to grandmother’s house, “The Visit” has its share of fairy tale-ish elements, highlighted by a recurring bit in which Nana asks Becca to climb in — all the way in — to her oven in order to clean it. Like its nods to found-footage clichés, such moments playfully stoke tension through knowledge of fables like “Hansel and Gretel.” And they’re aided by lead performances from Jong and Oxenbould that exude a compelling mixture of trepidation and disbelief that something really evil could be afoot, as well as by disquieting turns by Dunagan and McRobbie as grandparents whose quirky conduct — scratching walls in the nude at night; hiding adult diapers away from prying eyes — is decidedly off-kilter.
The trauma of parent-child separation, and the difficult process of transcending that pain, are undercurrents that course throughout “The Visit,” and except for a coda that states them too bluntly, those themes handled with a light touch that suggests Shyamalan has recaptured his knack for tackling big subjects through nimbly formulated genre stories. It may not be a complete return to form for the once-revered auteur, but as an unexpectedly chilling horror concoction defined by skillful scares, it’s a significant step in the right direction. [B+]