“The Visit” is as good as its two main characters wish. They hope to shoot something special with their cameras, and then they sort of get their wish as they become more aware of a certain sinister undertone around their visiting place. While initially looking confined within the limits of its genre, “The Visit” has smart, effective ways for building up mood and suspense to engage us, and how it provides us some creepy fun with sly self-conscious winks is refreshing compared to those drab, solemn found footage horror movies woefully devoid of any sense of dread, let alone humor.
Its story is told entirely through the cameras belonging to two young siblings Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who are about to meet the family members they have never met before. Before they were born, their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) left her rural hometown in Pennsylvania, and it is implied that her parents were not very pleased about her relationship with a guy who is her ex-husband at present. During the interview with her mother, Rebecca asks Paula about what really happened between Paula and her parents, but her mother is not so willing to talk about it for some reason.
Anyway, Paula recently made a contact with her parents she never saw for 15 years, and her kids are going to spend a weak with their grandparents while she enjoys a cruise trip with her new boyfriend. Rebecca, a smart girl with aspiration for filmmaking, sees this as a great opportunity for her documentary project, and Tyler, a rambunctious but fastidious boy who wants to be a rapper someday, is eager to participate in his sister’s project mainly for getting a chance to be in front of the camera and show his rap talent (how he avoids using profanities as a character in the PG-13 rated film is one of the amusing things in the film, by the way).
Shortly after their train arrives in the train station of their mother’s hometown, Rebecca and Tyler are welcomed by their grandparents John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan), who take their grandchildren to their cozy home located in a remote area. Although their cellular phones cannot get any signal in this area (this is not a good sign especially if you are in a horror film, you know), online communication is somehow available in the house, so Rebecca and Tyler can often talk with their mother using Skype.
As they spend their first day at their grandparents’ home, it seems they will have a good time with their grandparents as their mother hopes, but then Rebecca and Tyler begin to sense something odd and weird about their grandparents. While she is gentle and cordial to her grandchildren, Doris frequently becomes erratic, and that disturbs her grandchildren more as they witness more of it. John calmly explains to his grandchildren that his wife is not very well, but then John does not look that well either while looking more suspicious in his behaviors. Why does he go to a shed outside the house so often? Why is she so adamant about not talking about her conflict with her daughter? And why don’t they go to a local hospital where they have worked as counselors for many years?
As Rebecca and Tyler feel more uncomfortable with their grandparents’ increasingly disturbing demeanors, we get a number of good scenes packed with a substantial amount of tension and dread on the screen. In case of one day scene unfolded within a shady mazy place, it is smoothly shifted from a harmless moment of prank to a frightening possibility of danger, and I also like how the movie effectively handles a certain repeated circumstance involved with strange noises heard inside the house during nighttime. There are also numerous false alarm moments as expected, but they mostly work without much distraction, and some of them are surprisingly humorous (I especially enjoyed a moment which is clearly influenced by one of Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales).
The movie understandably looks shaky whenever its characters move roughly or frantically with their cameras, but it seldom feels too crappy or amateurish in visual aspects. After all, Rebecca really wants to make a good film which may be the starting point of her future filmmaking career, and her active filmmaking process, which does show her potential as a filmmaker at times, allows the director/writer M. Night Shyamalan and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti to make the film look more polished than expected. While it certainly helps that Rebecca and Tyler are equipped with two cameras during several key scenes in the film, its uneasy atmosphere is gradually established as the Rebecca’s camera occasionally captures small moments around the house, and it also tries some tongue-in-cheek humor as Rebecca and Tyler talk about how to present their grandparents and themselves in their film.
The main cast mainly consists of the performers not very familiar to most of us, and that helps accept them as the characters in the film without much difficulty. While Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are likable in their engaging performances, veteran performers Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie solidly support their young co-stars. Like Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), Dunagan and McRobbie have a juicy fun with the insidious possibilities behind their seemingly ordinary characters, and their performances are an enjoyable mix of homeliness and creepiness to savor.
Although it begins to lose tension after an expected plot turn during its third act, “The Visit” is a little competent horror movie with good mood and scary moments, and Shyamalan shows that he stills knows how to draw our attention despite a series of failures and disasters he has gone through during recent years. In my review on his previous film “After Earth” (2013), I wrote, “I can only hope that he will rise again someday, though I felt like watching a sinking ship being risen momentarily and resuming its descent.” I am glad that my feeling at that time turns out to be wrong at least for now.