The threat of being asked to take an hours-long stroll down memory lane, only none of the memories will be yours. Enduring those pregnant pauses that always end with, “You know, back in my day…” The constant socio-political self-censorship you maintain in order not to spook the horses too much or, worse, let yourself get drawn into a debate that will change no one’s mind, but may result in reapportionment of the will. There’s endlessly fertile territory for a horror film to mine when it comes to reflecting the uncanny strangeness of grandparent-grandchild relationships, especially as the latter moves toward young adulthood and the former toward the grave. The Visit pokes at a few of those possibilities with a stick, but loses interest faster than a preteen learning bridge.
Rebecca and Tyler Jamison (Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively) are the children of a runaway father. Their mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn), says her own parents never liked their philandering father in the first place, and a battle they fought a decade and a half prior on that contentious topic resulted in her estrangement from the family. Left without either parents or a husband, Paula seems nervous but heartened when her parents reach out to her to have Rebecca and Tyler spend a week with them at their country home. Paula, not yet ready to make amends, plants them on a train and heads off on a Caribbean cruise to get her groove back.
At first, Rebecca and Tyler are amused at their brittle but pleasant grandparents. Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie) seem encouraging of Rebecca’s video project documenting their introductory visit, the footage of which constitutes the entirety of The Visit itself. And Grandma Doris doesn’t scoff at Tyler’s ho-bashing freestyle raps; she even titters a bit. They all seem to be getting along so well that the adolescents shrug off their uncommonly early bedtimes and the directive that they stay out of the basement because it’s “got mold.”
At this early point in the film, The Visit makes the most out of the underlying tensions that affect virtually all generational gaps of this magnitude, in this case amplified by the scenario of kids whose personalities are starting to solidify belatedly being thrown into the deep end of the genetic pool they’d until now been deprived of. It’s unassertively unnerving that Doris doesn’t dress or carry herself like a 2015 septuagenarian, but, instead, like Mildred Natwick playing a Stepford wife. Grandpa John’s absentminded mid-afternoon retreat to the closet to get dressed for a costume ball that isn’t actually happening carries with it a sad weight. Rebecca and Tyler might be asking themselves whether they’ve missed their opportunity to fully understand their lineage, or whether they’ll ever hear their grandparents’ side of the rift that deprived them of prime bonding time.
Alas, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, working on a strict limited budget following a string of critical and financial blunders (stretching provocatively as long as Paula’s separation from her parents), proves understandably eager to deliver audience-reassuring horror-movie set pieces. And so it’s one scant sundown before offbeat eccentricities turn into disturbances, cheap shocks, and psycho-biddy tropes. Given most viewers’ biggest issue with Shyamalan in the past has been his aura of pomposity, it’s a relief that for once he seems to be reveling in the ridiculousness of it all (e.g. Grandma Doris’s repeated requests for Rebecca to climb into the oven to clean it thoroughly). But when the (non-spoiler alert) trademark Shyamalan twist finally arrives, it doesn’t synthesize anything other than the director’s devotion to his signature gimmick. Say what you will about The Village or The Happening, at least the left turns in those films widened the scope of Shyamalan’s thematic concerns. The secret of The Visit reduces everything to a campfire story.