Don’t ever leave your room after 9:30pm. That’s the one golden, Gremlins-like rule that is inevitably broken in M Night Shyamalan’s terrifically entertaining horror flick, The Visit.
Clearly energised by the experience of shooting a low-budget project free from studio oversight (and reportedly funded out of his own pocket), Shyamalan serves up a found footage flick that serves as a reminder of why the subgenre can be so effective. It helps that the characters are so vibrant where so many horror protagonists are mere cyphers, and that the jabs of horror are joined by an unexpected yet entirely welcome streak of dark humour.
Teenage filmmaker Becca (Olivia De Jonge) heads to her estranged grandparents’ house in the middle of nowhere with her rapping younger brother Tyler (a scene-stealing Ed Oxenbould) in tow. Becca plans to make a documentary about the old couple, to find out why they fell out with her mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) years earlier, and maybe even reconnect the family ties that came undone years before Becca was even born.
What Becca and Tyler find, when they step off the train in a cold, sleepy Pennsylvania town, are a pair of grandparents straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Grandma Doris (Deanna Dunagan) has long flowing white hair and twinkling blue eyes. Grandpa Peter (John Jamison) (whom Tyler and Becca call Pop Pop) seems pleasant in the slightly brusque manner of a weather-beaten old guy who’s spent a lifetime chopping up his own firewood. It’s only gradually, as the two youngsters roam their grandparents’ clapboard house, that they realise there might be something sinister about the couple.
Through Becca and her roving camera, Shyamalan gently probes at the seams of the horror genre and filmmaking in general. She talks precociously about the techniques of filmmaking and how they can be used to heighten tension, even as Shyamalan makes us aware that certain things are going on outside the brother and sister’s own field of vision. Just as the grandparents seem to enjoy playing increasingly sinister games with the kids, so Shyamalan foreshadows coming events with evident relish, fulfilling some expectations while completely confounding others.
The Visit is an increasingly rare example of a story that gives nothing away from its title or cast. There are no distracting big names in here to give you a clue as to where the story might be going, and Shyamalan cleverly keeps the very nature of his mystery obscure. Is there something supernatural going on in the grandparents’ house, or something more prosaic? It’s the nagging sensation of not even knowing quite what genre of film you’re watching that makes The Visit so engrossing.
Most of all, though, it’s the believably-drawn characters that make The Visit‘s horror so potent. Young wildcard Tyler is the most obviously likeable character, but then the somewhat snooty Rebecca begins to win our affection as we learn more about her. Even their grandparents have a spark of inner life, necessarily furtive and mysterious though they are.
By carefully setting up its drama, The Visit’s shocks become all the more effective. Shyamalan’s use of handheld cameras – a contrivance that has rapidly lost much of its power through misuse – has real impact here, and The Visit might have the most interesting deployment of found footage since 2012’s Chronicle. The subjective viewpoint leaves us, like its two protagonists, constantly wondering what lies outside the bedroom door. Our senses are prodded and poked by spectral figures in the distance or lurking at the edge of the frame, while more white-knuckle moments see the camera in the hands of other, less trustworthy characters.
After a series of expensive critical misfires (The Happening, After Earth and The Last Airbender all made money, even if they did underperform financially), The Visit marks a distinct return to form for Shyamalan. By scaling back and telling a simple story with just five central characters at its core, the writer-director emerges with a horror film of unusual depth. The Visit touches on such things as the generational divide and the fragility of familial bonds. It’s all related with such a lightness of touch that it’s easy to overlook that some aspects of the film are taboo-busting to a quite shocking degree.
A kind of twisted Hansel and Gretel for the YouTube age, The Visit is an arresting, surprising, blackly funny horror film. At the very least, it’ll change the way you think about Yahtzee forever.
The Visit is out in UK cinemas on the 11th September.
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