M. Night Shyamalan falls further down the cinematic ladder with latest flick 'The Visit'

The Visit / C+

Rated PG-13
Running Time: 94 minutes

How the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan was heralded as a force of cinematic nature, earning a pair of Oscar nominations for his debut, The Sixth Sense, top-dollar box office for Signs, and even superhero cred for Unbreakable, a film that arguably heralded the rise of the “serious” comic book movie. Then the hubris set in. Or revealed itself. And the filmmaker's career began to implode, bottoming out with the laughably bad eco-horror The Happening and an artistic gutting of The Last Airbender, which spent $150 million to alienate its entire Nickelodeon fan base. In 2013, Shyamalan was recruited by Will Smith to direct After Earth, the star’s $130 million act of nepotism, and while he proved he still had some convincing chops as a director, his storytelling instincts were as compromised as ever.

Maybe The Visit is an attempt to hit the reset button. With its $5 million budget, star-free cast, and found footage presentation (yes, the form is still with us), this Blumhouse B-movie horror brings with it only modest expectations. And still, Shyamalan underwhelms. The movie is a mess of warring artistic impulses that relies on cheap scares, a gimmicky yet obvious twist, and a pair of inauthentic leads to deliver a story that's better suited to a 30-minute short than a 90-minute feature.

Precocious teens Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) decide that their loving mom (the always good Kathryn Hahn) needs a vacation from them, and time with her new boyfriend. They arrange a visit with her long-estranged parents, with hopes of getting to know their Nana and Pop Pop and understand what caused the family break so many years ago. Becca, a budding documentarian, intends to chronicle the wintry, weeklong trip with a pair of video cameras.

At first the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) are thrilled to meet the teens, baking cookies and treats for them and delighting in Tyler's white-boy rap songs (which he performs under the moniker T-Diamond Stylus). The kids accept the quiet isolation of rural Pennsylvania, with its strict don’t-come-out-of-your-room 9:30 p.m. bedtime and lack of wireless or cellular service. But then things get weird. Pop Pop is hiding something in the shed, and the strange bumps in the night turn out to be grandma, doing things that, well, would give anyone the willies. The kids chalk it up to old age eccentricity and the onset of dementia, but their grandparents’ disturbing instability seems to be growing.

If The Visit were the debut of a young, unknown director, one might be inclined to be impressed with what is pulled off here. There are some effective shocks — particularly an under-the-house game of hide-and-seek — and true moments of heart and humor. Dunagan and McRobbie as the off-center Nana and Pop Pop are especially great finds.

But for a veteran director like Shyamalan (this is his 11th feature), The Visit plays more like a weird detour than a return to lean, mean basics. While he thankfully avoids the jerky, hand-held chaos that accompanies most found footage films — and there’s an undeniable air of creepiness — his film still feels dramatically padded, with a third act that relies on supposedly very smart kids doing very stupid things. Given that Becca is a stated cinephile, you’d think she’d seen at least one horror movie. Once the teens’ situation goes dangerously south, their inability to escape makes about as much sense as the advanced alien in Signs who couldn’t break out of a pantry.

And let’s talk about those sibling teens. While there are moments where we accept their willful naivete, they are, for the most part, movie constructs with little resemblance to real-life people. They are too pretty, too talky, and too pretentious. Becca spouts great founts of unconvincing movie-making jargon, while Tyler’s rap affectations are disconnected from any appreciation for hip-hop and its influences. It’s a middle-aged white guy’s interpretation of modern teenagers, and it feels as disconnected from reality as 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Which would be fine, if not for the found-footage format, which strains for verisimilitude.

There’s much to be mined from inter-generational fears and the way the elderly creep out adolescents. Shyamalan is smart enough to capitalize on some of that uneasiness, but misses more than he hits. The Visit is certainly better directed than many low-budget scare flicks, but it inevitably comes off as secondhand, a mildly entertaining, if clumsy, mix of eeriness and chuckles that arrests Shyamalan’s cinematic decline but certainly doesn’t reverse it. Perhaps Wayward Pines, his recent (and arguably more successful) foray into television, will offer him an opportunity to shine again.

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