Enter Jason Blum. The highly prolific Blumhouse Productions CEO has built an empire producing low-budget movies (usually genre pics) that turn big profits; he’s also something of an old-school studio head, inasmuch as his productions have a house style and frequently recurring themes. The Visit is recognizable as Blumhouse product in several ways: it’s shot in found-footage style, it’s confined mostly to a single location, and its primary scare-driver is dread of the nighttime. And its budget is a scant $5 million — bluntly put, 1/26th of After Earth’s.
The restrictions are, it turns out, to Shyamalan’s benefit — he simplifies the storytelling, reining in the convoluted narratives of an Airbender or a Lady. The focus is on a pair of teenagers, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who are sent to spend a week with their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. Their mother (the great Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t spoken to them in 15 years, and doesn’t particularly want to now, but the kids insist on the trip — mostly to let her go on a cruise with her beau.
When they arrive, they’re not sure what the fuss is about. “You guys are good kids,” their Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) tells them. “This is gonna be a great week!” But soon, weird things start happening — especially at night. They find Nana (Deanna Dunagan) wandering the house, vomiting. Another night, investigating weird noises in the hall, they discover her naked, clawing at the walls. Pop-Pop explains that she has a particular form of dementia that flares up at night (it’s called “sundowning”), so they probably shouldn’t come out of their rooms after bedtime. But he’s got some variation of it himself, confusing and forgetting things.
Becca looks all this up, and it checks out; “People are scared of old people for nothing,” she insists, taking on the familiar horror movie role of the skeptic to Tyler’s worrywart. But that line also underlines a key theme of the movie, one that’s essential to its success: by working on such a small scale, Shyamalan removes himself from the fantastical worlds and science-fiction tilts that he fumbled so badly in earlier works, and is dealing in more elemental concerns. The dread of The Visit’s first hour or so boils down to two points, infinitely identifiable to horror’s usual teen target market: 1. Old people are weird; 2. Old people are gross.
Some of this is played for scares; some is played (concurrently, even) for laughs. Yes, thankfully, somewhere along the line, the dour Shyamalan developed a sense of humor, and while not all of the jokes work (let’s be honest: very few of the jokes involving Tyler work), they create a welcome tension, a pattern of scary set pieces at night offset by deflating humor in the morning. He knows there’s an inherent silliness to the enterprise (early comparisons to the film-within-Arrested-Development Gangie aren’t entirely off-base), and his attitude has changed since The Happening: now, Shyamalan isn’t afraid of that silliness. (He even seems to make a joke at his own expense, when crazy Nana babbles a nonsense story about “creatures at the bottom of the pond” that sounds more than a little bit like Lady in the Water.)
Even more impressively, he juggles those horror and dark comedy elements with family drama beats which come to a head in a couple of teary-eyed interview scenes that, surprisingly enough, were met with dead-quiet involvement by my otherwise rowdy preview audience. They were with the movie, and this was the thing Shyamalan had and lost: the ability to take his audience anywhere. I’m glad he got it back. The Visit is goofy, audacious, scary, and fun. Now, let’s just pray it doesn’t provoke a big-budget follow-up.