It's safe to say that movie buffs have been waiting for the realization of M. Night Shyamalan's finished products to match the level of his visionary ideas for quite some time now. With The Visit, this balance is finally achieved.
It's not uncommon to mix comedy and horror, but when it happens, it's usually weighted on being on the side of a horror-comedy rather than a comedy-horror. There are often jump scares, but rarely do these genre-mixing films reach moments of true psychological terror. The Visit does and then some, taking a relatively normal, if somewhat sudden, week-long trip to visit grandparents and turning it into something that is, quite frankly, a complete mindfuck.
The story starts with a single mother (Kathryn Hahn) who has, after years of being estranged from her parents due to an incident that happened when she was a headstrong young woman, decided to let her two children visit their grandparents for a week on their own, the first time they will ever meet. Older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is precocious, tightly wound and a perfectionist, but charming - think Hermione Granger with a hipster vocabulary. Younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), is a hyperactive ball of inappropriate jokes, an aspiring rapper with a truly questionable taste in both lyrics and his approach to girls.
Becca is determined to record everything while she's there and get to the heart of that fateful night that their mother, loving but perpetually stuck in a post-adolescent victim mentality, just can't move past. Her hope is that by recording their time their with their grandparents, it will become a video scrapbook of their mom's life and she will be able to move on from her past.
But things soon take a turn for the weird, and then unsettling, and then truly terrifying, when their grandparents each start to exhibit signs of what seems to be varying degrees of dementia with violent tendencies.
It's here that the movie diverges into the realm of the psychological fake-out. Are the grandparents murderous or simply old and suffering from dementia? Are the kids in danger or are they just overreacting as they're not used to being around old people and their quirks? Did Grandma just try to attack them or was she just being playfully weird? The film keeps you guessing. A fake-out, when used too many times, starts to wear thin, but in this case, it only serves to ratchet up the tension. Likewise, while the found footage conceit is one that's been far overused, it only adds to the distorted perception of the film.
It's difficult to balance genres in one film as drastically and skillfully as Shyamalan has done here. There are some side-splittingly funny moments in the film, mostly thanks to Oxenbould's hilariously unfiltered Tyler, who steals every scene he's in. But DeJonge anchors the film with an emotional depth that keeps the movie from descending into slapstick farce or the grotesque. The grandparents are creepy and eccentric and downright malevolent, but the kids anchor the film and their performances are raw in a way that makes it all the more real as the metaphorical noose tightens around them.
It's a weird premise, but it's a premise that, with the combined genius of M. Night Shyamalan and Jason Blum producing, absolutely works. Shyamalan, despite the flak he's gotten in recent years, has made a few truly masterful films in his career. The Visit can now be included on that list.
The Visit opens this Friday, September 11.