Horror films are often a mixed bag. If they are too scary, they might give some PTSD. If, on the other hand, they feel too silly or improbable, they run the risk of kitsch or farce, even though comedy is often part of the scare. Both comedy and horror disarms us and brings our defenses of reason and rationale down to a minimum. A balance of both can concoct a solid horror film.
"The Visit" is a welcome return to form, albeit simplistic, hinging as it does on the Lovecraftian concept of some octogenarians being odd, eerie or out and out terrifying.
Here we have two teens molded from Spielberg and posed by Steve Jobs: Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) who are glib, self absorbed, sarcastic and never far from a laptop. The siblings chatter away and are hard to sympathize with, yet for the purpose of this story, they do supply laughs.
The kids are sent by their out of touch mom (Kathryn Hahn) to visit their grandparents (who they do not know) for a week. The two are a bit skittish but decide to make the experience into a documentary.
From the very first something is amiss and if we don't have a clue, the camera tells us: there is a shot through a window of their Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) his face blurry and indistinct.
The kids are ushered in to a warm and inviting house with cookies, cakes and muffins made by Nana (Deanna Dunegan) but are chagrined when the amiable Pop-Pop firmly informs them that bedtime is 9:30. They are dumbfounded.
That night, tucked in their bed, they are woozily awakened by retching sounds. Rebecca sees the shocking sight of Nana with vomit shooting from her mouth. A slight stomach flu.
When day comes, all is seemingly normal and at ease. But what is Pop-Pop doing going back and forth to the old shed with plastic bags? Nana reluctantly admits that Pop has issues with incontinence and carries the excrement to bury and burn it.
As the nights go on, Nana is covertly seen walking and raving, acting in the fashion of a wolf, a demon or some kind of monster. By day, all is well and as sweet as a sticky bun.
The film relies on the somewhat troubling and unsympathetic view that the older among us can be very frightening. This is a time honored concept from Lovecraft and Ira Levin among others and it does prove quite scary here. One sight of the spitting snarling and barking woman gave me an actual muscle spasm which was acutely uncomfortable and stabbing in itself, but thankfully, did not last long.
The best aspects of "The Visit" like a good ghost story, is its initial sense of mystery, of why and what if. There is a very effective and funny kitchen scene where Nana asks Rebecca to clean the oven ala "Hansel and Gretel". It is both jumpy and comical and it proves the best moment of the entire film.
Once the witchiness of the old grands are shown in all of their wiles however, the film becomes less effective and surprising. Like my spasm did,the vibrato fades. It is always better to hide than to reveal.
Still, (especially if you are unused to the unique quiver of horror) there are some healthy terrors to be had. I looked away from the screen more than a few times. There is something quite scary and visceral about a woman shown from the back, cackling away in a rocking chair under spooky circumstances.
The film plays well when it simply shows us what is scary, rather than offering far fetched explanations and origins.
Though "The Visit" is a one note jolt with a transparent climax, horror fans can take heart that M. Night Shyamalan is back to basics, and poking at some rich cemetary soil. If only this individualist director would have let go of fanciful logic and hinted a bit more, while reasoning with us less.