I have the distinct feeling that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit is receiving a kind of free pass of good — or at least passable — marks simply because it’s not as dire as his last few movies, and possibly because it’s relatively short and takes less time to trudge your way to its typically unsurprising surprise revelation. Neither of these things, however, makes Mr. Shyamalan’s little foray into the land of found-footage horror what you might reasonably call desirable. Apart from the fact that Shyamalan is here intentionally trying to be funny — and less successfully than The Happening (2008) managed by accident — it’s nothing new under the sun. This is the same old Shyamalan false-shuffle, but with a smaller (and cheaper) cast and an exploitation-level budget. The worst of that is that its $5 million price tag means it will be in the black before you read this. The good news is that there’s no even slightly rational way it can spawn an actual sequel. Then again, considering how idiotic — yes, that’s the word for it — the story is, there’s perhaps a possible irrational sequel.
The story, such as it is, involves two precocious movie kids — burgeoning filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and wanna-be rapper (sort of a barely pubescent Vanilla Ice) Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) — being sent to their grandparents so mom (Kathryn Hahn) can spend a week on a cruise with her latest boyfriend. That might sound reasonable, but it doesn’t take into account that mom hasn’t seen or talked to her parents since she left home — under never-spoken-of circumstances — when she was 19, and the kids, of course, have never seen these people. Just how this was even arranged is kind of vague, but in this movie that scarcely matters. Considering the kind of film this is, we can be assured that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are Not Quite Right. Oh, it’s nothing serious — just things like Nana wandering naked around the house at night and clawing the walls, and urging Becca to crawl into the oven to clean it, while Pop Pop makes age-related excuses for her, has mysterious outbursts of anger and occasionally dresses to go to a party that never happens.
Just to make sure we know we’re in Shyamalan country, there are things that would be at home in The Village (2004), like The Basement That Must Not Be Entered, The Shed That Must Not Be Used, etc. It’s also clearly Shyamalan in that the reasons for these things are transparent. Plus, these kids — especially Becca — are credulous as hell. Even granting that horror movies of a certain kind only keep going because the characters insist on doing stupid things, The Visit manages to tarnish that lily with gilt. Worse, it assumes that everyone in the movie — and apparently the audience — is equally clueless. Even the slightest glimmer of intelligence or even simple observation would bring the proceedings to a halt, but that would keep Shyamalan from getting to his big ending — one that manages the considerable feat of being tasteless and a damp squib all at once. In short, it combines “Yuck” and “That’s it?” in one sinking fit of dumbness.
The whole business of making The Visit as a found-footage thriller feels like Shyamalan’s desperate bid for being “with it.” (And really, there’s no one more square than M. Night Shyamalan.) No one told him that he was coming in on the 15th day of this nine-day wonder approach to filmmaking. Even if he hadn’t, this approach adds nothing whatever to the movie. Worse, Shyamalan is incapable of really subscribing to the peculiar ethos of the form. He may roughly follow the approach, but he can’t do it without cheating. More, he can’t bring himself — with all the shaky-cam in the world — to turn in something that doesn’t look like a Hollywood movie. The whole thing is too carefully composed and professionally lit to pass for found-footage — even found-footage supposedly shot by a talented amateur filmmaker. Yeah, it’s the best looking found-footage movie ever made — and it’s an obvious fake. Oh, well. At least it can truly be said that, no, it doesn’t suck as much as his last two films. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language.