After the drudgery of After Earth and The Last Airbender in recent years, M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) is back in fine thriller form with The Visit, a spooky low-budget creeper that nicely mixes humor and horror.
With their mother (Kathryn Hahn, Parks and Recreation) on a cruise, young teen Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent to frosty rural Pennsylvania for a week to spend time with their grandparents, affectionately called Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). Things are fine at first, even if the kids are forbidden to go in the basement and have a strict bedtime of 9:30 p.m. Weird sounds nonetheless keep them awake, and after naked Nana scratches the walls late at night, they know they’re in for the weirdest week of their lives. But are they actually in danger? Part of the fun of the movie is that you’re not sure for a while, and then it becomes unmistakable.
A sense of dread hits you from the start, not from anything shocking in the story but from the instant realization that this is yet another found-footage horror pic. Mercifully, the found-footage gimmick — in which we only see what the characters in the movie record on their cameras — is used intelligently, deftly switching in a documentary style between two cameras with film shot by Becca and Tyler that’s often at an odd angle (high/low/dutch), or in a close-up or long shot, all of which keeps us off-kilter. Storywise, we know something’s off with the grandparents, and that’s echoed visually by the camerawork. This is smart filmmaking.
The setting has a cold and barren feel; even the supposed “warmth” of Nana and Pop-Pop’s house is undermined by muted lighting when it clearly could’ve been more brightly lit and therefore “warmer.” The snow, leafless trees, grey skies and mud all suggest an unwelcoming environment in which Becca and Tyler are stuck. Think how different the film would feel if it were set during the summer, with jaunts to the lake and family picnics.
DeJonge is effective as Becca, a young teen often (rightfully) annoyed with her vexing little bro, and Dunagan and McRobbie are appropriately odd as the grandparents. But the one who stands out is Oxenbould as Tyler, an energetic and immature boy who freestyle raps because he wants to be a YouTube sensation. He’s the comic relief, and therefore key in keeping the tone balanced between comedy and horror.
The Visit doesn’t have a musical score, which is important when you consider how many so-called “horror” movies rely on a jolt from the soundtrack to provide a scare. Instead, Shyamalan — who wrote and directed the film — is back to good old-fashioned filmmaking craftsmanship here, effectively allowing the eeriness to speak for itself without ever feeling forced.
That’s the frustrating thing about M. Night Shyamalan: We know how good he can be (The Sixth Sense), and how bad (The Last Airbender), and it feels like the bigger the budget, the worse the movie is. With more money (Airbender), he has more tools to play with, and more responsibility to show the big budget on screen, and the results feel compulsory. In contrast, when his resources are limited, as they were with the $5 million budget on The Visit, he’s able to focus on what he has, not be distracted by excess, and produce a better product. Moral of the story: Production companies, stop giving M. Night Shyamalan boatloads of money! Less is definitely more.