M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough go of it in recent years, but it wasn't always this way. Fifteen years ago, the director was the King of Hollywood, when endless comparisons to Spielberg abounded in the wake of "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and "Signs." But those early highlights gave way to an abrupt career nosedive that began with "The Village," as the director started to become known more for shoehorning increasingly uninspired twists into his stories than for his ability to captivate an audience.
Then came the double-whammy of "The Happening" and "The Lady in the Water," before Shyamalan reached his career low point when he shifted to the realm of fantasy and sci-fi in the disastrous "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth." The director now attempts to rebound with "The Visit," a horror-comedy (though there was some debate after the trailer was released, it's always clear that the movie is definitely in on the joke) that recaptures a bit of Shyamalan's early promise, delivering humor and thrills in equal measure.
Giving a modern spin to "Hansel and Gretel," the film follows budding teen filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), as they take a trip to visit their estranged grandparents, with whom their mother hasn't spoken to in 15 years. She left home for reasons that she refuses to explain, but whatever happened caused a rift in the family that remains unresolved. Becca plans to make a documentary of their trip, hoping to capture on film a bit of family history as well as some overdue catharsis and reconciliation.
When they arrive at the secluded farmhouse, their grandparents seem warm and friendly, and Becca wastes no time in calling them Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). But the more time spent with their new relatives, the more things start to seem a little off with ole Nana and Pop Pop. For starters, the children are given a strict bedtime of 9:30, and they soon discover that after that point Nana has a tendency to scamper naked about the house while clawing at the walls. Meanwhile, Pop Pop spends the days taking repeated trips out to the mysterious woodshed. The week goes on, and things grow even weirder. As each new day is announced in bold, red letters, we grow anxious that something terrible is rapidly approaching.
Invigorating the overdone found-footage format, "The Visit" benefits from a pared-down, simple story, and a lack of big name stars. Taking the unintentional ridiculousness of something like "The Happening" and playing it for deliberate laughs, Shyamalan finds a looseness in the material that his previous films have never demonstrated. He uses Becca's wannabe auteur as an excuse for his camera's impeccable compositions, but her pretentious explanations of terms like denouement and mise-en-scène also act as tool for the director to poke a bit fun at himself.
Shyamalan continues to prove himself an excellent director of child actors. DeJonge is appealing as the precocious and somewhat nerdy Becca. Tyler's white-boy rapper persona can be obnoxious, but Oxenbould is totally convincing as an annoying little brother. I could have done without quite so many extended demonstrations of his freestyling skills (they usually end with an enthusiastic "'ho!"), but the actor has enough natural charisma that I wasn't actively rooting for his untimely death. The two have a nice chemistry together, and the sibling's relationship is always convincing and even sweet. As Nana and Pop Pop, McRobbie and Dungan face an even more difficult challenge. Their characters are a mystery, prone to shifts in demeanor that transform them from kindly old souls to menacing threats, often within a single moment. The speed at which their lucidity seems to melt away never ceases to be unnerving.
Shyamalan's love of storytelling and storytellers is always apparent, and he wraps the film in fairy tale motifs, from Nana's repeated request that her granddaughter climb deeper into the oven to clean it, and Becca's talk of her film providing the "elixir" her mother needs to heal her psychological wounds.
Shyamalan ingeniously taps into childhood fears of being away from home for the first time, beyond the reach of parental protections. There's a bit of body horror in the way he exploits our natural discomfort with the inevitable deterioration -- both mental and physical -- that comes with old age. While the buildup isn't always particularly scary, it gathers a sense of unease that leads to a surprisingly nasty climax. It's a tricky tone to master, and "The Visit" doesn't always nail it, though the film has an awareness about itself that is a nice respite from the ponderous, self-serious tone of Shyamalan's last few features. It's a fun ride, and while "The Visit" isn't a complete return to form for the director, it's most assuredly a step in the right direction.