M. Night Shyamalan is back with familiar horror recipe

Oh Gretel …

Oh Gretel …

The Visit
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie and Kathryn Hahn. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

The new film by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, etc.) has been hailed as a modest “comeback” after a couple of flops. Be that as it may, The Visit is mainly brisk, generic entertainment—a comic horror film that’s smartly conventional, amusingly silly and generally mild-mannered (in a PG-13 sort of way).

The story premise has a single mom (Kathryn Hahn), long alienated from her parents, sending her children (teenager Rebecca and younger brother Tyler) off for a first-ever visit with their grandparents but refusing to go with them herself. The grandparents, Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan), look “normal” enough at first, but hints of family secrets and other worrisome stuff start edging into view almost immediately.

Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are the key figures in this central portion of the story, not only because of their increasing alarm, but also because the two of them, and Becca in particular, are documenting every aspect of the visit with their video cameras. Shyamalan’s movie is, in a way, a tarted up version of what two such kids might have “filmed” in the course of their family visit and its conveniently cinematic misadventures.

“Conveniently cinematic” seems part of the point in this case. Both kids flaunt a technical vocabulary more suited to college-level cinema studies majors, and many of their choices and actions in (and for) the film are plainly motivated by cinematic concerns, sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else.

The characters, of course, are little more than pawns in the games that this kind of story tends to play, but you could also say that they are pawns in the games that Shyamalan is playing with those stories here. There are touches of parody and satire in some of it, and the outlandish plotting (including their mom’s “secret” and Tyler’s timely redemption of a failure in pee wee football) indulges the wishful thinking of movie audiences while remaining mostly indifferent to murders that, outside the artificial safety of a genre movie, would have left some very large emotional scars.

If the film has a particular special strength, I’d say it’s in the director’s skill at presenting the characters as slightly absurd but not entirely unsympathetic. The kids’ mom seems to have heroine potential at first, but soon seems a little immature and maybe a little crazy as well. The kids’ moments of precociously adult behavior are fanciful and parodic, with the occasional hint of something demonic.

McRobbie and Dunagan are good with the grandparent roles, which devolve from sentimental stereotypes into lunatic caricatures, his full of melancholy and hers hyperactive in a way that is hysterical in at least two senses of that word.