Perhaps I either ignored or blocked out the fact that The Visit was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, from either the numerous TV spots when it was in theaters to the Blu-ray slipcover that bears his name. But I was surprised that the force behind The Sixth Sense put this together, and perhaps a little bit encouraged that he may have regained some of the mojo that has been missing since Signs came out way back in 2002.
The film finds Loretta (Kathryn Hahn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) about to send her kids, 15-year old Jenna (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year old Tyler (Ed Oxenbuld) on a week-long stay with her parents. In recent Shyamalan films, the ending has been a little convoluted but in The Visit it's the premise that bears this a bit. Follow me here: Loretta has neither seen nor apparently talked to her parents in 17 years since eloping with her then-boyfriend, whom their parents did not like. The boyfriend became a husband and father, and left Loretta and the children to run off with a girlfriend. Loretta is going on a cruise with her new boyfriend, apparently has no one to take care of the kids for a week and thus, her parents get this duty. She doesn't leave two teenaged kids at home but it fine with putting them on a train to meet her parents too, so go figure.
Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and wants to film a documentary about her grandparents whom she has never met, and when her and Tyler meet them, Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, Inherent Vice) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan, Losing Isaiah) seem like charming and nice enough folks. The farm they live on is nice, and the grandparents observe a strict bedtime of 9:30pm. When Becca tries to skirt this and sees Nana becoming ill, it's the tip of the iceberg in terms of just how scary the grandparents are, and Becca and Tyler begin to wonder if they'll make it off the farm alive.
The Visit is a hybrid within the horror genre, where most of the film follows in the documentary vein of The Blair Witch Project but has a lot of the same nuance and storytelling of a found footage film like Paranormal Activity as the days of the week draw on and more time is spent on each day before departure. Focusing purely on the events that you're supposed to be paying attention to (the scary ones of course), Shyamalan keeps things simple, lets the scary bumps in the night speak for themselves, and the hair on your arms stands up early and often throughout The Visit. That part of it, he's got down, or perhaps even reclaimed.
If there was something that falls a bit flat in the film, it would be where the kids have quieter moments of reflection upon themselves, each other, or their mother. After their father left they developed phobias (because I guess a kid in an M. Night Shyamalan film has to have them), and they wonder about themselves and while it's meant to be poignant, it doesn't come off that way. I think this happens because the premise to get the kids to the house was one where the viewer had to contort their sense of disbelief, and mine just couldn't get there. The kids handle the moments well as actors, the story just doesn't give them a good enough platform to elevate their scenes. The performances from the adults are just fine, particularly Dunagan, who balances caring, doting grandmother and batshit crazy she-beast just nicely, while McRobbie serves as a good balance. They handle the rigors of age well until the kids learn itis something more than that.
The Visit seems to be a return to basics of sorts for M. Night Shyamalan, trying to remember what scared him while seemingly rebooting his creative merits. He seems to still know how to scare the crap out of people, though he is still finding a bit of difficulty with the emotional connections and some storytelling mechanisms. He seems to be closer to the mean than he has been in recent films, and that's a good thing.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and using the AVC codec, there's a lot to like about The Visit. The whites of the Pennsylvania snow look natural and aren't blown out, flesh tones are natural and image detail is present and abundant, even in the lesser palatable moments (you'll know what those are when you see them), but wood details of doors and cabinet panels are noticeable as are fabrics and skin textures. There is a moment or two of image softness but nothing to deter from what is an otherwise quality transfer.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless rules The Visit, and it's a pretty convincing soundtrack at that. The low end comes out when the kids are on the train, and the soundtrack possesses dynamic range on things like a door being pounded on, or during the first act sequence when Becca and Tyler are playing hide and seek underneath the house. Clawing on the other side of a door is clear and discernible and as the action gradually ramps up the source material is equal to the task. Nice work from Universal.
Things start with a making of on the film (9:56) which is less about the film and more on Shyamalan and why he did this movie, his thoughts on shooting it and on the story he created. Even at less than 10 minutes this is a little self-indulgent. The alternate ending (2:25) is fine, if a little more emotional without the original ending during the credits, and ten deleted scenes (8:34) are easily redundant. A series of photos that Becca ‘took' at the house round things out (1:13), along with a standard definition disc and digital copy.
Once you get past the opening scenes of the film, The Visit turns out to be a pleasant surprise in how scary it was, harkening back at times to vintage M. Night Shyamalan. It's not without some warts but it's fun to watch. The technical side is good and the extras are scarce but it's definitely worth carving out the time to see before that requisite winter trip to see the grandparents.