“The Visit” (2015)

M. Night Shyamalan is up to his old tricks in “The Visit.”

Creating a global sensation with “The Sixth Sense” just over 15 years ago, film director M. Night Shyamalan was almost immediately heralded as “the next Spielberg” by film fans and critics alike. Over the course of a series of films that included “Unbreakable,” “Signs” and “The Village,” Shyamalan created what I call the “Shyamalan Formula,” in which fantastic or mythical concepts are explored in down-to-earth, real world environments involving normal, every-man types of characters. The first two thirds of each movie consists of a long, slow burn followed by a shocking third act twist.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan wasn’t able to generate the same impact that the twist ending of “The Sixth Sense” had on audiences with each successive film and by the time “The Village” came out in 2004, Shyamalan’s shtick was getting tired. By the time he delivered “The Happening,” it was just painful.

So the auteur writer/director took a sharp career turn into science fiction blockbuster gun-for-hire on “The Last Airbender” (2010) and the Will Smith/Jaden Smith co-starring vehicle, “After Earth” (2013), both of which crashed and burned at the box-office.

Now he’s back to his old stomping grounds with the low budget, found footage style horror thriller, “The Visit,” and by sticking to what he does best, Shyamalan has delivered his best picture in over a decade. That might be faint praise for those not enamored with his early work, but if you’re a fan of his slow burn pacing and shocking twist endings, “The Visit” will certainly satisfy that Shyamalan sweet tooth.

First things first. AVOID SPOILERS at all cost. If you’re really interested in seeing “The Visit,” you’ll be best served by seeing it cold, knowing as little about the plot as possible, and by seeing it as soon as it comes out because the twist can easily be spoiled in just a few words. By the time you read this review, I’m sure the twist will be easily discovered by a quick Google search or revealed by some jerk who didn’t like the movie and just decided to broadcast its secrets on his/her Facebook feed.

“The Visit” could be considered Shyamalan’s purest attempt at a horror film, exploring a phobia not commonly explored in the genre: fear of the elderly. Whether it’s fear of our own mortality, our distaste for wrinkly skin or just unbridgeable generational gaps, the elderly are often marginalized in American society. The ravages of dementia can make some seniors seem alien, spooky, even mentally unbalanced. “The Visit” tests our moral compass and levels of compassion for the elderly and their physical and mental struggles while challenging us to try to differentiate between odd behavior and something more sinister.

Two precocious tweens, brother and sister Becca and Tyler, are sent to stay with the grandparents they’ve never met for a week during winter break. Their mother, a struggling single mom and Walmart sales associate, has been invited to spend the week with her new boyfriend on a Caribbean cruise and the kids want to make their mom happy and show their growing independence.

Becca has an ulterior motive, however. As a budding documentary filmmaker, she wants to make a film about the experience and she coaxes her little brother into being her second unit director. Her primary goal with the film is to try to bring closure to an incident her mother refuses to talk about which happened 15 years prior that led to the fractured relationship between her mom and her grandparents.

Apparently whatever happened that day was bad enough that the family hasn’t spoken in 15 years and the kids have never met their maternal grandparents. Becca believes that if she can get Nana and Pop Pop to talk about the experience, she may be able to bring about a family reconciliation, or at least give her mother the sense of forgiveness she desperately needs.

Nana and Pop Pop aren’t exactly a Norman Rockwell painting to begin with. Pop Pop hides his used depends in plastic shopping bags in the shed and Nana scurries about the house in the middle of the night scratching at the walls. The kids are warned never to leave their bedroom after 9:30 in the evening.

Are Becca and Tyler’s grandparents suffering from dementia and other age related illnesses or is there something darker going on in that old house? The last 20 minutes of “The Visit” goes places so batshit crazy, one particularly nasty scene pushing the limits of the film’s PG-13 rating, that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play a game of Yahtzee again.

The only downside to the free-fall into crazy town that makes up the film’s finale involves Shyamalan’s choice of the video vérité style to tell the story. There comes a point where it becomes very hard, if not impossible, to believe that anyone would continue to film their experience under threat of certain danger and/or death. I doubt even the most passionate tween documentary filmmaker would keep the cameras rolling under the circumstances presented in “The Visit,” but the script dictates that they must or we, the audience, would be cheated a proper ending to the film.

If you can get passed the rapidly tiring “documentary style” technique used to tell the story, “The Visit” offers at least a couple of really chilling moments and a few “hairs standing up on the back of your neck” thrills. It may also keep you from visiting nursing homes at night and shopping malls before 10 AM.

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