M. Night Shyamalan Returns to Pennsylvania for ‘The Visit’

Grandpa and Grandma's nuttiness is captured on camera by their ambitious -- and terrified -- grandchildren in Shyamalan's latest.

“I want to do this for you.” Mom (Kathryn Hahn) is almost convincing when she says this, looking directly into the camera held by her 15-year-old daughter. What she’s doing is a little less clear: she goes along with the interview for budding documentary-maker Becca (Olivia DeJonge), to a point, and she agrees that Becca and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) can go visit their grandparents, from whom mom (otherwise nameless here) broke all ties when she was just 19.

Mom tells just enough of this story to Becca during her first two minutes on screen that you might wonder what could have been so catastrophic that she hasn’t spoken to her parents for 15 years. She also tells you enough that you definitely wonder why she’d send her kids off to visit with them for a week, while she goes on a vacation with her new boyfriend. Soon enough, the kids are confessing to the doc camera that they believe they’re doing something for their mother, rather than the other way around, that she needs away time with Miguel (mostly unseen, but played by Jorge Cordova). More to the point of The Visit, they want to reconcile Mom with her parents.

The idea that mother and daughter want to do something for each other isn’t a terrible way to ground a movie, and not even a very strange way to start a horror movie. Still, you might rightly feel apprehensive, given that this is M. Night Shyamalan’s latest excursion into rural Pennsylvania, reportedly made for $5 million of what he made for directing After Earth (which might as well have been set in rural Pennsylvania). He uses the location both to free and trap the kids, a tension he’s used both well and poorly in the past, frequently at the same time. Isolated and a little anxious (Tyler complains right away that he’s unable to text, since, you know, he’s been doing it lately with “two separate girls”), the siblings proceed to act out, fret, investigate, and confess. She’s determined to make a serious documentary (which he associates with reality TV), and he’s thinking his freestyle rapping might get him somewhere (he likes to close all his songs on an emphatic “Hos!”, which rubs Becca exactly the way you think it might).

The kids’ combinatory competition and reliance on one another are put to the test when they’re confronted with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). No surprise, they’re odd, and right away. Though Becca thinks maybe their age and creeping dementia might explain their essential illogic (the kids are advised to stay in their room with the door locked after 9:30PM) and physical tics (Nana paces around the house, naked, at night, puking and scraping at the walls with her fingernails; Pop-Pop has a flat-out disturbing relationship with his rifle), Tyler is more inclined to panic. He’s not thrilled when Nana speed-crawls to chase him loudly through a dark, scary space under the porch, and even less happy when he learns the secret Pop-Pop is hiding in the barn.

However the movie goes on to explain these alternately alarming and comic phenomena, the kids spend some time trying to sort it out, and their process is simultaneously predictable and clumsy. They also have to contend with a by now tired found-footage conceit, which means the frame cavorts and the breathing turns raspy and the monster lurks just out of frame on more than one occasion. But even such regular material benefits from McRobbie’s dry delivery. “You guys are good kids,” Pop-Pop tells them one evening, just before bedtime. “By the way, there’s mold in the basement: we don’t want you to get sick.” Of course this means they’re headed eventually to the basement, if only to find out what’s really there.

Before their discovery, Becca and Tyler (and Mom, by extension, when they skype with her) see very little, and what they think they know is never quite right. Some of this business is contrived (Nana conveniently splats some gnarly, instantly hard biscuit dough on the camera lens of Becca’s laptop, so mom can’t see her children, even when she can hear them) and some of it is a function of the genre. But it’s still a decent reminder that despite the pervasiveness of cameras everywhere, despite the pervasive notion that cameras can protect you, they clearly can’t.

In an attempt to protect themselves, the kids set up a hidden camera in hopes of accumulating “evidence” of something. Becca carries it with her in search of “positive cinematic moments”, both use it as an excuse to “get B-roll” or to conduct interviews beyond their grandparents’ apparently very watchful eyes. They bear the camera like a shield when Pop-Pop declares: “We should play a board game. Families play board games.”

By now you know the camera can’t help. But it does continue to frame a set of relationships, a family, that otherwise can’t possibly make sense. And that may be The Visit‘s creepiest idea, that a family — the notion of family — is so utterly premised on its performance.

RATING 4 / 10