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Biggest Surprise Of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ Is That It Isn’t Bad

Sixth Sense’ director tries his hand at horror-comedy

Becca (Olivia DeJonge) meets her grandmother Nana (Deanna Dunagan) for the fi...

Credit: Universal

Above: Becca (Olivia DeJonge) meets her grandmother Nana (Deanna Dunagan) for the first time with some unexpected results in "The Visit."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews M. Night Shyamalan's new film, "The Visit."

Transcript

Companion viewing

"Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?" (1969)

"The Sixth Sense" (1999)

"Cabin in the Woods" (2012)

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With Halloween coming up, Hollywood is doing its best to keep scary films in theaters. The latest is "The Visit" (opening Sept. 11 throughout San Diego) from director M. Night Shyamalan.

M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out and the big news is, it doesn’t suck.

Poor Shyamalan, he was once a critics’ darling and audience favorite for making the Oscar-nominated supernatural tale, "The Sixth Sense." But he's fallen horribly out of favor in recent years. His penchant for third act plot twists and artistic pretension soon became a cliché that people laughingly rejected. His last five films have embarrassingly low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, one even dipping below 10 percent. So it’s big news that his latest film, "The Visit," isn’t bad. In fact there are moments when it reminds us of why we used to like his work.

For "The Visit," he rejects Hollywood budgets and stars, and instead makes a small, found footage film about a young brother and sister visiting their estranged grandparents. The sister, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), decides to make a video of the trip.

But unlike most found footage horror films, Becca has an eye for the mise-en-scene and steady camera work. She also hopes that the video will provide the "elixir" her mom needs to pull her out of her funk after running away from home as a teen only to be abandoned by the father of her children. Her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) is happy to help with the video so long as he can rap on camera, preferably in the post credit sequence.

The kids are excited about their visit to meet their grandparents but soon after arriving in the isolated home, they discover that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) turn out to be more than a little weird. Nana asks Becca to get inside the oven to clean it, and at night she runs around the house naked and scratching at the walls. Meanwhile, Pop Pop keeps dressing for a costume party that's not happening, and piling up his used Depends out in the shed.

OK, it's easy to see how all this could scare a couple of kids. But maybe what’s scary is just the fact that the grandparents are getting old and suffering from assorted elderly ailments and diminishing mental faculties.

The first half of the film works well with the tone emphasizing the humor of the interaction between the generations. It's not so much that we get scared but we get a kick out of seeing how scared the kids get.

But Shyamalan is a filmmaker prone to straight-faced seriousness and he never seems quite at home with comedy. It doesn't come naturally like it did to Edgar Wright in "Shaun of the Dead" or Drew Goddard in "Cabin in the Woods." And what's more problematic, is he doesn't know how to mix the comedy with genuine scares or emotion. Plus he just can’t resist going for his cliched twist at the end.

In the case of "The Visit," the twist isn't even clever so it registered a kind of ho-hum reaction from the audience. He also banks on us caring for his characters more than we really do and that makes the moments where characters are given emotional scenes a bit awkward because we're not fully engaged in the drama.

But a major shout out to Dunagan and McRobbie as the creepy grandparents, they make the film immensely watchable.

"The Visit" (rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language) is a marked improvement over Shyamalan’s recent films, but it’s hardly living up to the promise many of us felt after seeing "The Sixth Sense."

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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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