** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY M. Night Shyamalan
STARS Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould
Olivia DeJonge and Deanna Dunagan in The Visit (Photo: Universal)
Your mileage may vary, but I find the prospect of sitting through another motion picture shot in the "found footage" format about as appealing as watching Jaden Smith tackle the title role in a big-budget production of King Lear. Yet here's writer-director M. Night Shyamalan — whose last in a string of flops, incidentally, was the theater-clearing After Earth, starring Jaden and dad Will Smith — pinning his comeback on a film utilizing a gimmick that already began wearing out its welcome soon after 1999's The Blair Witch Project made it all the rage.
That's not to say some good movies haven't been produced employing this slant — 2010's The Last Exorcism immediately springs to mind — but The Visit won't be joining their ranks. A tepid horror yarn that might as well have been called Old People Are Scary!, this film finds Shyamalan allowing this clumsy approach to stand in the way of generating anything resembling suspense. The title refers to when precocious siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, the young star of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) decide to visit their grandparents, whom they've never met since the elderly couple have been estranged from the kids' single mom (Kathryn Hahn) for years. Becca wants to become a filmmaker and thus records the entire trip; for his part, Tyler fancies himself a white-boy rapper, leading to a few excruciating sequences that won't exactly keep Eminem up late with worry. The grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), inexplicably find their behavior adorable, but the goodwill isn't exactly returned. While the old folks are nice enough, Becca and Tyler are disturbed by their eccentric behavior, which includes dancing around the house naked (Nana) and keeping soiled diapers in the shed (Pop Pop). The kids assume it's just the natural way old people behave, only waking up to their dire predicament when it might be too late.
Just as sure as the New England Patriots will find a new way to cheat their way to the championship, so too will an M. Night Shyamalan thriller feature a climactic third-act twist. Of course, it's been all downhill since The Sixth Sense, and The Visit doesn't reverse the trend. The twist is fairly obvious to anyone who's ever read an EC horror comic or watched an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but even those who don't suss it out might feel underwhelmed. At least the acting is strong by all concerned, and Shyamalan again admirably resists giving himself a plum role (see: Signs, Lady in the Water).
As for the movie's terror quota, it generally registers more on the risible side, featuring sudden (read: lazy) jump cuts, looming close-ups of wrinkles (Shyamalan's approach to his elderly characters smacks of ageism), and even a rash diaper (DADT). But again, maybe your mileage will vary: At my advanced screening, many in the theater reacted with the same measure of hysteria as those who caught The Exorcist during its first shows back in 1973 or Psycho when it premiered in 1960. But for me, a peek at the man behind the curtain (shower or otherwise) reveals Shyamalan as a shyster who's been regurgitating the same tricks ever since little Haley Joel Osment first saw dead people.