Growing up, the song, “Over the River and Through the Wood” must have meant something different to M. Night Shyamalan than most kids. Instead of conjuring visions of snow-covered hills and warm-baked pumpkin pies, it must have made him think of psychotic grandmothers and a wood shed full of used diapers.
At least, that’s what I’ll be thinking of the next time I hear the song, thanks for Shyamalan’s effective little thriller, “The Visit.” In the film, a single mother ships her daughter and son to her parents’ house in the country for a week while she goes on a cruise, and weirdness ensues.
In fact, much weirdness ensues. Not long after Nana and Pop Pop greet Rebecca and Tyler at the local train depot and take them to their home, the grandparents begin exhibiting strange behavior. At night, Nana, played with kitschy gusto by actress Deanna Dunagan, roams the halls of the house naked and scratches on the walls, and Pop Pop keeps ducking into a wood shed for reasons unknown.
The weirder things get, the more determined Rebecca and Tyler are to find out what’s going on, and the more precarious their situation seems. From Pop Pop’s forced cheerfulness to Nana’s increasingly bizarre nocturnal wanderings, it gradually becomes evident the siblings are in mortal danger, only they can’t leave.
Or at least that’s what Shyamalan wants you to think. After Nana asked me to crawl into the oven to clean it, I would have hit the road.
Other than this obvious plot hole, the script for “The Visit” is a tiny bit of ingenuity. It reminded me of Shyamalan’s early work, when he made smaller but undeniably gripping movies like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” and of a time in his career before “The Happening,” “Lady in the Water,” and everything that came after those egregious aberrations of filmmaking. There’s a blissful sense of being deceived, and of being pulled toward a moment when the truth is revealed and your perspective shifts.
Shyamalan is a master of the big reveal, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There is indeed a moment when someone utters only a few words, and the already shaky ground under the siblings’ feet crumbles completely. As I looked back on the film, I was able to see the trail of clues that led to that moment, and I had to smile and mentally applaud Shyamalan on a job well done.
I didn’t even mind Shyamalan using the found footage technique as his storytelling device. “The Visit” is comprised of footage Rebecca, a budding filmmaker, and her brother shoot on a pair of cameras. Shyamalan avoids most of the despised tropes of the found footage approach, such as characters filming a scene when they should put down the camera and run, and nausea-inducing shakiness, without sacrificing the homemade feel. At times, “The Visit” almost feels cinematic, thanks in part to Rebecca’s highly developed sense of how to frame a shot. (I liked her brief essays on creating visual tension. How did she become so adept so young? Clearly, she’s a prodigy.)
There’s a lot about “The Visit” to like. There are some great scares, the story moves quickly, and the actors, including the kids, do good work. I also like how Shyamalan provided comedy relief though Tyler. He’s been accused of taking his increasingly absurd stories too seriously, but here, he does a great job of peppering the movie with humor and fun references to other horror films.
“The Visit” isn’t perfect. Once the truth comes out, the rest of the film becomes a bit unhinged, which kind of works, given what came before, and kind of doesn’t. But Shyamalan had already won me over, so I threw out my objections and stayed on board for the duration of the ride.
Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker who lost his way. He seems to be trying to find his way back, though, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’d even crawl into an oven to see what he’s cooking up next.
Three stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material, terror, violence, some nudity, and brief language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.