On the whole, grandparents usually fare quite fare in stories.
Think Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother or any one of the thousands of cosy nannas and granpas who populate Hallmark movies.
They bake cookies, they beam with welcoming saint-like happiness, and they indulgently let their grandchildren do all the things their own children were never allowed to do.
But in my M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, the long-estranged grandparents of Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ben Oxenbould) don’t exactly fit that picture-perfect postcard mould.
In fact, copious amounts of nurturing food aside, the only way to describe John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan) is odd, very, VERY odd.
Sure, they smile on cue, act like family board game nights are the best things ever devised, and enthusiastically ask the children of their long ago kicked out daughter Paula (Kathryn Hahn) – she left right after high school to marry her substitute teacher – what they’re favourite things to do are, but they are ODD.
And try as they might to get around the fact, Tyler and Rebecca, a precociously- aspiring filmmaker who films the entire benighted visit from start to finish as part of her aspirations to make an Oscar-winning documentary, puts a Herculean amount of effort into rationalising of the highest order, have to finally admit their grandparents didn’t exactly walking out of central casting.
Part of their strong, all-evidence-to-the-contrary-dismissing rationalisations on the way to their frightening epiphany stem from trying to fill a gapingly-painful emotional vacuum caused by their father’s sudden departure to live in California with a woman he met in a Starbucks.
While mother Paula loves them fiercely, both Rebecca and Tyler, who suffer from an aversion to looking in the mirror and an OCD-level fear of germs respectively, yearn for something approaching familial normal, and see an unaccompanied visit to Nanna and Pop-pop as the way to achieve it.
And nothing, nothing at all, is going to get in the way of that.
That is, of course, until all the bumps, scrapes and thumps in the night, the agonised yowling and the vacant, ghoul-like stares finally are too much to counter with even the most fervent of intensely-argued logic.
It’s this slow-burn realisation, and a twist that is worthy of the name – yes this is a written-and-directed Shyamalan movie so there has to be a twist; in this case, thanks to his production partners, Blumhouse, it’s a good one and sustained well – that gives The Visit so much of its engrossing, edge-of-your-seat appeal.
There is as much time and character development given over to Tyler and Rebecca’s backstory, and the harrowing emotional scars it has created, as the actual thrills and spills themselves, which are judiciously placed for maximum effectiveness.
It lends the film a substance and emotional impact that many horror films, concerned primarily with getting to the scary payoffs, neglect, a sense that these young people, all bright-eyed and bushytailed, and convinced family nirvana awaits them in Masonville, Pennsylvania, are going to realise sooner rather than later that families don’t always come in Norman Rockwell servings.
Shyamalan is careful to drip feed us the telltale signs of madness, of things not quite being right, and thanks to Rebecca’s methodical need to capture each and every moment for Oscar glory, we don’t miss a second of their descent to dysfunctional family hell.
It’s not without its faults, of course with mum Paula all too keen to pack the things off to the parents she still refuses to have contact with in any way, sight unseen, and a final act that devolves a little too much into climactic cliche, but on the whole The Visit sustains its creepy premise perfectly, dropping in telltale signs that all is not well right along the way.
Like The Sixth Sense many of these small but ominous signs only take on real significance in retrospect, but as a whole, they are unnervingly effective, leaving you wondering when the next, highly-unhinged shoe will drop, and when Rebecca will finally acknowledge that her impulsively-cheeky brother who raps and provides much of the comic relief, is right on the money about his weird grandparents.
The chemistry between DeJonge and Oxenbould is well nigh impeccable, their relationship as serious, auteur-in-waiting sister, and rambunctious, rap-soliloquy loving brother, wholly believable, the central emotional fulcrum on which The Visit almost wholly visits.
And McRobbie, and Dunagan in particular, excel as the grandparents who initially say and do all the right things, before descending into the sort of creepy behaviour that leaves Rebecca and Tyler wondering if they really want the whole nuclear family happy ever after rigamarole after all.
A delicious mix of comedy, horror and existential longing, that mostly balances itself right to the final heart-thumping moments, The Visit is more psychological horror than actual blood-and-ghosts horror, less fright for the sake of it than scares with emotional weighting.
And naturally, twist-heavy as it is, all that can be said about the ending is that if their father leaving them didn’t scar them for life, then this visit to their grandparents could come very close to doing the job.
It is not, as you might expect, the expected trip of a lifetime.