Once upon a time, way back in the early 2000s, there was a director who made great thrillers. He was praised far and wide. However, in the latter half of that decade and into the next, M. Night Shyamalan (for that was his name) began to squander his artistic gifts on a long string of terrible stories and implausible twists. Could “The Visit” (2015) be the film that saves Shyamalan’s career? I’m not convinced it will, but at least it’s a decent movie.

“The Visit,” told in faux-documentary style, starts innocently enough—as most horror does. Teen director Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is capturing on film her trip to her grandparents’ house with her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). The siblings are visiting because their mother (Kathryn Hahn) is going on a cruise with her boyfriend.

Becca, while open to her mother dating, is very interested in why her father left and why her mother moved away from her grandparents’ home many years ago. After realising that wrestling this information from her mother is a fool’s errand, she decides to interview her grandparents on the subject.

   However, right away, the siblings notice something amiss about Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). When Pop Pop seems strangely distant and Nana has wild mood swings, Becca chalks it up to dementia and old age. Tyler investigates further, and he doesn’t like what he finds.

What’s great about “The Visit” is that it plays on acutely real fears of aging and the loss of one’s memory and personality. It’s a simple idea that pays off with a great Shyamalan twist—and I am so glad to see a good twist from him again.

It also features some of Shyamalan’s best writing in years. The dialogue between Becca, Tyler, their mother, and their grandparents is quite believable and well-delivered by a capable cast.

What’s not so great is the documentary element: it makes the film feel dull when it should feel disquieting. Many of the film’s spookiest moments end up being completely lifeless because the camera is set at flat angles far away from the action. This is often to the benefit of Becca’s documentary, but it’s also to the detriment of the audience. With an idea as interesting as this, the movie either needed to be filmed conventionally or have more creative camerawork within the documentary form. One or the other would have given it scares to match the strength of its story.

The film also seems too beholden to its documentary structure when it involves characters setting up shots for too long. While these instances sometimes move the plot forward, it’s in very small doses. It’s also tedious—especially in a horror film—to hear characters talk about how shots are constructed and why they are filming something a certain way.

But, as far as thematic material goes, the movie has a solid foundation. The questions that interest Becca are resolved in satisfying ways that bring a bit of weight to a story that could have felt innocuous. It’s the well-built story that’s the star here, not the scares.

   I still wish, however, that “The Visit” was more frightening and more engaging, because the potential is there for a truly terrifying and more memorable film. Hopefully, Shyamalan can continue to improve in the future.  

 

“The Visit” = 2.5/5

“The Visit” is now playing in theaters nationwide

(Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language.)