I hear Hollywood whispers. I feel something is amiss. I see dead directorial reputations. And I smell a comeback.
M. Night Shyamalan, the maestro of the mind-blow, hasn't been on a hot streak of late. We used to expect the razzle-dazzle of The Sixth Sense, but he wins only Razzies now.
With The Visit, a pastoral horror comedy and found-footage, family dysfunction, fairy tale, film-within-a-film fiesta, a Shyamalan rebound happens. It's a genuinely fun affair – let's not write it off as a cult classic just yet – with the smirking air of a confidant and mischievous filmmaker. "No one cares about cinematic standards," says one of The Visit's budding auteurs. Ha! The story involves a young, single mother – Kathryn Hahn, who wonderfully skirts around the film's edges but is vital to the movie's every thing – who reluctantly parcels off her two teenage children to her estranged parents. The split happened 15 years earlier; the grandparents are strangers to the grandchildren.
From New York, off the kids go to rural Pennsylvania, where they take to the family farm of "Nana and Pop Pop" like Norman Rockwell took to oil paints and turkey dinners. It gets strange, though, especially after 9:30 p.m., when things go bump, scratch and old-people naked in the night.
Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are excellent at creepy – better than Olivia DeJonge (as 15-year-old Rebecca Jamison) and Ed Oxenbould (as 13-year-old Tyler) are at being creeped out.
Central to the movie's structure is the film being made by the children during the week-long visit. Rebecca, poised and intelligent, is inquisitive about the family rift. The trip provides an opportunity to learn about the things her mother won't tell her.
Her brother helps, often as comic relief. Young Oxenbould is a precocious, scene-stealing ham of a child actor. In The Visit, he plays a precocious, scene-stealing ham (and aspiring misogynistic rap star).
The children have issues, involving their imagined role as the reason for their parent's breakup. It's a bit of context, handled by writer Shyamalan in a shoe-horned way. More graceful are the fanciful Brothers Grimm allusions – the teenage Rebecca fits into a standard oven, with room for a Gretel to spare.
The creeping out slowly builds to a twist that Bruce Willis and Chubby Checker would approve of, but the ultimate resolution has a bit of "that's it?" tidiness to it.
After, a late moment involves a rain- and tear-soaked blur of police lights and shivering people. It's a shot unlike the look and feel of the preceding 90 minutes – heavier, scarier something from something rated R. A hint, perhaps, of the comebacking Shyamalan's next visit.