- comeback attempt.
Something in us yearns to see M. Night Shyamalan make a comeback. The writer-director's early triumphs — especially The Sixth Sense (1999) — were so perfect that we don't want to believe they were flukes. Surely there's more where they came from, we tell ourselves, and time after time we come away let down and thinking, Maybe next time.
Yet Shyamalan has only gone from bad to worse. Lady in the Water (2006) was bad. The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) were worse. Studios used to put his name above the title, as they did with Hitchcock's. Usually these days you'll find it in a poster's small print — if you squint.
So, The Visit. The filmmaker's 11th feature. Its trailers made clear instantly that Shyamalan was throwing us a change-up. I remember thinking, OK, his career has become a joke. How fitting that he's decided to combine horror with comedy. A grandmother asking a girl to climb into her oven? Was this some sort of fractured fairy tale? Could it finally be what we'd been waiting for?
Nope. Unless what you've been waiting for is another found-footage film. Seriously. One based on the shakiest of premises and sprinkled with stabs at humor with an unbelievably dull blade. And dumb jump scares.
A 15-year-old aspiring filmmaker named Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are packed off for a week in the Pennsylvania sticks with grandparents they've never met. Their mom (Kathryn Hahn) wants the time to enjoy a tropical cruise with her new boyfriend — never mind that she left home under acrimonious circumstances and hasn't spoken to her parents in nearly two decades. (The question of how the trip was arranged is one of many the movie never gets around to answering.)
Naturally, Becca films the experience and, naturally, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are off their rockers. Except when they're in those rockers, doing something odd like staring at the wall and laughing — one of Nana's favorite pastimes. Pop Pop prefers to keep busy by stacking his soiled adult diapers in the shed. Seriously.
The kids are told not to leave their room after 9:30 p.m. ("Bedtime. We're old.") — which, of course, they eventually do. A surprising number of days go by before the children begin to fear for their safety, considering what they observe at night. Namely, Nana naked and clawing at walls, casually vomiting, and crawling on all fours up and down hallways at high speed.
Now, I'm accustomed to being let down by Shyamalan's films, but this was the first time I was also offended. The kids are initially accepting of the strange behavior they witness because their grandfather attributes it to Nana's mid-stage Alzheimer's. As for his own incontinence and habit of dressing as if for a costume party that took place many years in the past, these are chalked up to the effects of old age.
I've watched loved ones suffer the indignities of dementia and can't help but find the filmmaker's decision to use them for comic fodder and cheap shocks in deplorable taste. To my knowledge, no previous movie has ever equated mental and physical deterioration with the monstrous, but that's Shyamalan's vision in The Visit. What's next — a thriller set in a nursing home where all the patients are zombies?
As so many of his films do, this one has a surprise twist near the end. But it pales in comparison with the surprising level of insensitivity on display in these 94 derivative, implausible, disappointing minutes.
And (spoiler alert): The oven bit's a total tease.