The Visit ***

M. Night Shyamalan returns to form in this eerie thriller.

Is it worth $10? Yes

After giving us the drudgery of “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender” in recent years, M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) is back in fine thriller form with “The Visit,” a spooky low-budget creeper that nicely mixes humor and horror.

With their mother (Kathryn Hahn, “Parks and Recreation”) on a cruise, early teen Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent to frosty rural Pennsylvania for the week to spend time with their grandparents, affectionately called Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). Things are fine at first, even if the kids are forbidden to go in the basement and have a strict bedtime of 9:30 p.m. Weird sounds nonetheless keep them awake, and after naked Nana scratches the walls late at night they know they’re in for the weirdest week of their lives. But are they actually in danger? Part of the fun of the movie is that you’re not sure for a while, and then it becomes unmistakable. 

A sense of dread hits you from the start, not from anything shocking in the story but from the instant realization that this is yet another found footage horror pic. Mercifully, the found footage gimmick – in which we only see what the characters in the movie record on their cameras – is used intelligently, deftly switching in a documentary style between two cameras with footage shot by Becca and Tyler that’s often at an odd angle (high/low/dutch), or in a close-up or long shot, all of which keeps us off-kilter. Story-wise we know something is off with the grandparents, and that’s echoed visually by the camerawork. This is smart filmmaking.

The setting has a cold and barren feel; even the supposed “warmth” of Nana and Pop-Pop’s house is undermined by muted lighting when it clearly could’ve been more brightly lit and therefore “warmer.” The snow, leafless trees, grey skies and mud all suggest an unwelcoming environment in which Becca and Tyler are stuck. Think about how different the film would feel if it were set during the summer, and included going to the lake and picnics.

DeJonge is effective as Becca, a young teen often (rightfully) annoyed with her annoying little brother, and Dunagan and McRobbie are appropriately odd as the grandparents. But it’s Oxenbould who stands out the most as Tyler, an energetic and childishly immature boy who freestyle raps because he wants to be a Youtube sensation. He is the comic relief, and therefore is key in keeping the tone balanced between comedy and horror.

“The Visit” doesn’t have a musical score, which is important when you consider how many so-called “horror” movies rely on a jolt from the soundtrack to provide a scare. Instead, Shyamalan – who wrote and directed the film – is back to good ‘ole fashioned filmmaking craftsmanship here, effectively allowing the eeriness to speak for itself without ever feeling forced.

That’s the frustrating thing about M. Night Shyamalan: We know how good he can be (“The Sixth Sense”), and how bad (“The Last Airbender”), and it feels like the bigger the budget the worse the movie is. With more money (“Airbender”) he has more tools to play with, and more responsibility to show the big budget on screen, and the results feel compulsory. In contrast, when his resources are limited, as they were with the $5 million budget on “The Visit,” he’s able to focus on what he has, not be distracted by excess, and provide a better product. Moral of the story: Production companies, stop giving M. Night Shyamalan boatloads of money!

Did you know?
Although it appears the children shot the film, it was in fact Shyamalan’s camera operators who did most of the filming. The only scene the kids actually shot was the “Hide and Seek” game because the camera operator was too big to fit under the porch.

'The Visit' Movie opens 9/11. Get tickets here!