After delivering back-to-back creative and commercial duds in the sci-fi action genre, M. Night Shyamalan retreats to familiar thriller territory with “The Visit.” As far as happy homecomings go, it beats the one awaiting his characters, though not by much. The story of two teens spending a week with the creepy grandparents they’ve never met unfolds in a mockumentary style that’s new for the filmmaker and old hat for horror auds. Heavier on comic relief (most of it intentional) than genuine scares, this low-budget oddity could score decent opening weekend B.O. and ultimately find a cult following thanks to its freakier twists and turns, but hardly represents a return to form for its one-time Oscar-nominated auteur.
In a way, it’s a relief to see Shyamalan set aside the studio-system excesses of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” and get down and dirty with a found-footage-style indie crafted in the spirit of producer Jason Blum’s single location chillers. (Blum actually joined the project after filming wrapped, but it subscribes to his patented “Paranormal Activity” playbook to a T.) Except that the frustrating result winds up on the less haunting end of Shyamalan’s filmography, far south of “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” and “The Village,” and not even as unsettling as the most effective moments in the hokey “The Happening.”
That’s not to say “The Visit” is necessarily worse than some of those efforts, just a different kind of animal. The simplicity of the premise initially works in the pic’s favor as 15-year-old aspiring documentarian Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old aspiring-rap-star sibling Tyler (Ed Oxenbould of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) say goodbye to their hard-working single mom (Kathryn Hahn, better than the fleeting role deserves), who ships off on a weeklong cruise with her latest boyfriend. The kids travel by train to rural Pennsylvania to meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), the purportedly kindly parents Mom left behind when she took off with her high-school English teacher and caused a permanent rift in the family.
Becca plans to turn the whole experience into an Oscar-caliber documentary (proving she sets her sights higher than Shyamalan these days) and also an opportunity to exorcise the personal demons both she and Tyler carry around in the wake of their parents’ separation. Unfortunately for the kids, their grandparents appear to be possessed by demons of another kind — although it takes an awfully long time for them to grow legitimately concerned about Nana’s nasty habit of roaming the house at night, vomiting on the floor and scratching at the walls in the nude, and Pop Pop’s almost-as-bizarre behavior, including stuffing a woodshed full of soiled adult diapers, attacking a stranger on the street and regularly dressing in formal wear for a “costume party” that never materializes.
Ominous warnings to not go into the basement (because of “mold,” you see) and stay in their room after 9:30 (Nana’s “bedtime”) fly right over the heads of our otherwise pop-culture-savvy protagonists. Becca even stubbornly refuses to use her omnipresent camera for nighttime reconnaissance, citing concerns over exploitation and “cinematic standards” — one of the lamest excuses yet to justify dumb decisions in a horror narrative — until the weeklong stay is almost up.
Shyamalan has long been criticized for serving up borderline (or downright) silly premises with a straight face and overtly pretentious atmosphere, but he basically abandons that approach here in favor of a looser, more playful dynamic between his fresh-faced leads. At the same time, there’s a surreal campiness to the grandparents’ seemingly inexplicable behavior, fully embraced by Tony winner Dunagan and Scottish character actor McRobbie, that encourages laughter between ho-hum jump scares. Their antics only reach full-blown menacing in the perverse-by-PG-13-standards third act. (The obligatory reveal of what’s really going on works OK, as long as you don’t question it any more than anyone onscreen ever does.)
Even if there’s less chance the audience will burst out in fits of inappropriate chuckles, as was often the case in, say, “The Happening” or “Lady in the Water,” Shyamalan still can’t quite pull off the delicate tonal balance he’s after. Once events ultimately do turn violent — and Nana does more than just scamper around the floor or pop up directly in front of the camera — the setpieces are never as scary or suspenseful as they should be. Even worse are the film’s attempts at character-driven drama, including a couple of awkward soul-baring monologues from the otherwise poised young stars, and a ludicrous epilogue that presumes auds will have somehow formed an emotional bond with characters who actually remain skin-deep throughout. One longs to see what a nervier filmmaker could have done with the concept (and a R rating).
The technical package is deliberately less slick than the Shyamalan norm, although scripting Becca as a budding filmmaker interested in mise en scene provides d.p. Maryse Alberti (whose numerous doc credits include multiple Alex Gibney features) an excuse to capture images with a bit more craft than the average found footage thriller. Shyamalan purposefully decided to forego an original score, but the soundtrack is rarely silent between the chattering of the children, a selection of source music and the eerie sound editing that emphasizes every creaking door and loud crash substituting for well-earned frights.