The Hallmark greeting card version of grandparents is one of gray- and white-haired sweetness and light, comforting presences who spoil their grandkids, feed them sweets every chance they get, and impart plenty of wisdom as they frequently retell the same nostalgic stories of long ago. Naturally, they wouldn't harm a hair on their heads. In daring to put his signature shivery spin on this fixed emblem of unconditional love, M. Night Shyamalan has left behind his recent troubled, big-budget, less personal studio fare (2010's "The Last Airbender
," 2013's "After Earth
") for a glorious, long-time-coming return to form. Made on a comparative shoestring budget of just $5-million, "The Visit" holds the same technically meticulous, richly characterized spirit of the auteur's early thrillers (among them, 1999's "The Sixth Sense
," 2000's "Unbreakable
," and 2002's "Signs
"), this time narrowing its gaze on the unresolved issues of a broken family and the harsh realities of growing older.
In preparing for a week-long visit to the rural Pennsylvania home of her estranged Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), 15-year-old filmmaker-in-training Becca (Olivia DeJonge) endeavors to shoot a documentary that she hopes will help mend fences and reunite mom Loretta (Kathryn Hahn) with her parents for the first time in fifteen years. Becca and 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are excited to meet their grandparents, and Nana and Pop Pop appear to be more than welcoming. Told that lights should be out by 9:30 p.m., the siblings nevertheless sense that something very strange is occurring on the other side of their closed bedroom door. Pop Pop explains that Nana is suffering from a form of dementia called sundowning, but as the week presses on and the behavior of both their grandparents becomes increasingly erratic no matter what time of day it is, it becomes clear something far more devious is going on with them.
Sharing the same bloodline as 1988's craftily fiendish thriller "Grandmother's House
" and 1989's tasty horror-comedy "Parents" while arguably besting them both, "The Visit" preys upon the trepidations of viewers in regard to mortality and the often unpleasant process of aging. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has a moving story to tell beyond his serious ability to creep out audiences, and so what might have come off as cheap exploitation toward the elderly instead holds a sensitive dramatic weight. Becca and Tyler, who are meeting their grandparents for the first time, are aware that they are caught in the middle and see their visit as a way to explore why they and their mother had a falling-out. Braving their own struggle of a father (Benjamin Kanes) who abandoned them five years earlier, the teenage brother and sister are searching for a harmonious familial reconciliation that may never happen. The wounds over what took place are still raw for Nana, and it probably doesn't help that she and Pop Pop are in a state of clear mental deterioration. The film's tone, weaving straight horror and suspense with intermittent alleviations of humor, is crucial to retaining levity and fun in the face of heavy subject matter. And, when Shyamalan's ready, he delivers the spine-tingling goods.
Broken up by daily establishing titles ("Monday Morning," "Tuesday Morning," etc.), the narrative builds steadily as the core mystery of what is going on with this sometimes-kind, sometimes-volatile old couple thickens. This is a slow-burn so tautly conceived that it never for a second feels slow, and scenes of jolting, armrest-clenching tension arrive at a clip rate. A set-piece where Becca and Tyler receive a surprise visitor during their game of hide-and-seek under the porch is freaky to the max, but the events that follow over the next hour fully live up to it. An unraveling collision of expertly spun twists and terrifying confrontations, the third act is particularly masterful as Shyamalan works his audience to a fever pitch. It isn't simply that he is adept at scares and the visual art of storytelling, but that he finds the emotional truth behind the people on the screen and the unimaginable situations in which they find themselves. In the rare moments when he misses the mark, as with the decision to send the film off on a forced comedic note that has no place following such a dramatically involving denouement, it proves all the more disappointing precisely because the proceedings are otherwise so skillfully modulated.
"The Visit" is a hybrid of faux-documentary and found-footage, but M. Night Shyamalan extracts a classy beauty out of this overdone format and makes it fresh again. As Becca and Tyler, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
") are outstanding, given the time to find the multidimensional layers of their characters while forming a poignant sibling bond. Their intelligence is never in doubt, either, and their casual references of film techniques and terms goes a long way in cementing Becca's passion for filmmaking and the perceptive ways this love has rubbed off on her younger brother. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie (2014's "Inherent Vice
") are disquieting stunners as Nana and Pop Pop, turning warmth to unhinged intimidation on a dime. And, as single mother Loretta, Kathryn Hahn (2015's "The D Train
") gives another one of her customary standout supporting performances; the changes of emotion read across her face as she waves good-bye to her kids tells everything that needs to be said about the love she has for them. Taking artistic cues from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and the eerie iconography of the Brothers Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel," the impish, dread-inducing "The Visit" plays out like a children's storybook as written by Mister Babadook. If Shyamalan is on the cusp of his next professional renaissance, it wouldn't come a moment too soon.