Fright films are so often made in spendthrift form, crammed with effects and stunts, sounds and surprises aimed at making us jump again and again. The best path to severe anxiety is much simpler and free. Just introduce tension and wait until the unseen and the unknown raise us to the heart attack level of angst.
This is just what “The Visit” does and why it’s a nifty cascade of suspense, scares and surprises. By remaining a smartly staged thriller rather than a formula shocker, it does quite well with precisely what it set out to do: play on all our fears like a Steinway grand piano.
The setup is familiar enough to put a nice rug under our feet. This is presented as yet another found footage film, though it’s far too well photographed and lightened with dashes of ironic humor. At the center are two siblings recording a week’s winter holiday at their long-estranged grandparents’ farmhouse. The kids are the movie’s director in chief, 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), a bright know-it-all Philadelphia city girl, and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wiseguy she has appointed as her camera assistant. We open with their cameras rolling. The curtain-raiser for Rebecca’s documentary is her interview with their single mother (Kathryn Hahn), who refuses to detail why she hasn’t been on speaking terms with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) for years.
While Mom sets off for a vacation with her new boyfriend, the duo head off by train to the relatives’ small-town home. What ideal folks their newfound elders are. The kids, who mock each other’s foibles with secret on-camera monologues, are both at a sensitive stage of life. They miss their runaway father and need more attention than Mom can offer. Pop Pop, a sort of white-haired Paul Bunyan who loves chopping firewood with his big ax, and Nana, a whiz of a baker, seem like just what they need.
The grandparents greet the pair with great affection. They let the kids play hide and seek in the barn’s crawl space. They are good sports about being filmed. And when that footage captures them exhibiting eccentric behavior after dark, Pop Pop gently apologizes, “We’re old people.” Best the kids should go to sleep right at 9:30 p.m., he says. And always, always stay out of the basement.
As the story moves on, the tales that Nana and Pop Pop tell their little darlings reveal some nutty inner voices. Inquiring neighbors begin to drop by when the couple are absent, asking if things are OK. Rebecca and Tyler begin to suspect that their hosts are weird-old, like the witch who wanted to put Hansel and Gretel in her oven. Or as Tyler puts it, like “Halloween” mental hospital runaway Michael Myers.
Since almost the entire film happens without mood-setting music or gimmicky cinematography, viewers are as mystified as the children. As the activities we see evolve from kooky to eerie to freaky, we’re torn between feeling amused or scared stiff. We build to a literally dirty gag that is at once the most repulsive and sidesplitting zinger in a month of Sundays.
“The Visit” is a standout in the increasingly crowded field of fright movies. DeJonge and Oxenbould are outstandingly good as the show-off kids, deliberately overacting for their own home movie. She’s touching as the sensitive leader of the pair; his hambone emoting steals scene after scene. The senior actors are wonderfully hard to read, making us shiver and sympathize by turns.
This keen creep show was written, directed and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, an up-and-down filmmaker who likes to finish his movies with unexpected O. Henry surprises. The shock here is that after a decade away from praiseworthy work, he’s back in crackerjack form. ___
This article was written by Colin Covert from Star Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.