M. Night Shyamalan had his heyday almost 20 years ago. He leapt out of the gate with such confidence he became a champion instantly. And then...something went awry. He became embarrassingly self-serious, his films drowning in pretension and strained allegories. His famous twists felt like a director attempting to re-create the triumph of "The Sixth Sense," where the twist of the film was so successfully withheld from audiences that people went back to see the film again and again. But now, here comes "The Visit," a film so purely entertaining that you almost forget how scary it is. With all its terror, "The Visit" is an extremely funny film.
There are too many horror cliches to even list ("gotcha" scares, dark basements, frightened children, mysterious sounds at night, no cellphone reception), but the main cliche is that it is a "found footage" film, a style already wrung dry. But Shyamalan injects adrenaline into it, as well as a frank admission that, yes, it is a cliche, and yes, it is absurd that one would keep filming in moments of such terror, but he uses the main strength of found footage: we are trapped by the perspective of the person holding the camera. Withhold visual information, lull the audience into safety, then turn the camera, and OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT?
"The Visit" starts quietly, with Mom (Kathryn Hahn) talking to the camera about running away from home when she was 19: her parents disapproved of her boyfriend. She had two kids with this man who recently left them all for someone new. Mom has a brave demeanor, and funny, too, referring to her kids as "brats" but with mama-bear affection. Her parents cut ties with her, but now they have reached out from their snowy isolated farm and want to know their grandchildren. Mom packs the two kids off on a train for a visit.
Shyamalan breaks up the found footage with still shots of snowy ranks of trees, blazing sunsets, sunrise falling on a stack of logs. There are gigantic blood-red chapter markers: "TUESDAY MORNING", etc. These choices launch us into the overblown operatic horror style while commenting on it at the same time. It ratchets up the dread.