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Terrifying 'The Visit' is a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan
Peter Mcrobbie stars as Pop Pop in The Visit. - photo by Josh Terry
Its about time.

M. Night Shyamalans films have been in steady decline for more than a decade, to the point that the directors name is practically a punchline. But The Visit is a return to form that will remind moviegoers that early hits like 1998s The Sixth Sense werent just a dream.

Just make sure you understand what youre in for with this one.

The Visit is a straightforward film with a simple plot: two kids spend a week with their grandparents, and slowly things get weird. For most of the film, you cant tell if the grandparents behavior is simply the dark side of senility or something more wicked.

The visitors are Becca and Tyler (Australian actors Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), a pair of teens who are meeting their maternal grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents years before Becca and Tyler were born but has finally consented to let them visit while she goes on a cruise with her boyfriend.

Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem innocent enough, if a little too quirky to emote genuine apple pie warmth. They are awkward with their grandchildren and clearly uncomfortable with their new role.

Of course, anyone would be awkward if they were being followed around with a camera all the time. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and has chosen to document every moment of the trip and turn it into a gift for her mother.

It doesnt take long before Becca starts getting bizarre material for her project. Pop Pop starts dressing himself in a tuxedo for an event that isnt happening and confronts an innocent bystander on the street he thinks is following him. Nana becomes almost inconsolable whenever Becca brings up her mother. And when the kids venture outside the bedroom after their 9:30 p.m. bedtime, grandmothers nocturnal behavior is even stranger.

The brilliance of this is that Shyamalan presents all this weirdness in a way that feels foreboding, especially through the eyes of a child. Yet taken individually, each event can be explained away by the treacherous advances of old age. For a filmmaker known for twist endings, you wonder if the twist is that you arent watching a horror movie at all.

The acting is solid on all counts, but Dunagan really makes things work, hitting just the right mark of ambiguity for Nana to keep things going. Rather than rely exclusively on jump scares (and be advised, there are jump scares), Shyamalan allows Dunagan to be frightening without always having to leap at the camera. (The found-footage style helps with this, even if it can be kind of tedious to deal with.)

Its a suspenseful mix, but the best news is that The Visit saves its best (or worst?) for last. The final 20 minutes of this film are horrifying, suspenseful, surprising and darkly comic, all at the same time. You might find yourself laughing out loud while gripping your seat in terror.

That being said, the manic ending strains at the films conservative PG-13 rating. While no individual moment might justify an R technically you dont see the most disturbing events their cumulative effect puts The Visit well past the threshold of sensitive viewers.

Many will feel Shyamalan pushes things too far with at least a half-dozen jaw-dropping, I cant believe that just happened moments. Its just enough to make it difficult to recommend The Visit in good conscience, in spite of its many strengths.

But for seasoned horror fans and people who have been waiting to see the Sixth Sense director deliver the kind of film we knew he was capable of, The Visit is a reassurance that even if Shyamalans characters are crazy, our confidence in him wasnt.

The Visit is rated PG-13 for sustained suspenseful sequences, violence, profanity (including a single use of the F-word), vulgarity and some non-sexual nudity.