Remember what the world was like when anyone last cared about an M. Night Shyamalan movie? George W. Bush was in the White House, Vanessa Carlton was on the radio, and you couldn’t even tweet about how cool you thought “Signs” was because Twitter wasn’t even around yet.
The early 2000s seem like several lifetimes ago, especially for the director who soared early in his career with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and, yes, “Signs,” and then spiraled into creative freefall through the likes of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” But, with the clever, cheeky and only slightly scary horror film “The Visit,” Shyamalan is partying like it’s 2000 all over again.
Fifteen-year-old budding documentary filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old wanna-be rapper brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are going to visit their grandparents, whom they’ve never seen. Mom (Kathryn Hahn) cut ties with her parents years ago when she ran off with her children’s father — who has since left her for another woman.
Grandfather, aka Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) have tracked their daughter down online and invited the children to stay for a week at their isolated farm in the Pennsylvania countryside where there’s no cellphone service. That means mom can take a break from parenting to spend some quality time with her boyfriend by going on a cruise. And, if mom and the kids need to talk, there’s always Skype.
Sounds like a good plan? Well, what part of “isolated farm” don’t you understand?
Of course, faster than you can say “I see old people,” Pop Pop and Nana turn out to be as creepy as midnight in a graveyard. But it’s good that Becca has brought a couple of cameras and her laptop along to document all the strange things that go bump in the long night.
Since much of the film is from the viewpoint of her cameras, “The Visit” fits into the tiresome found-footage trend, but Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, unexpectedly injects it all with such a wily sense of humor that it works.
Much of the success of “The Visit” goes to the cast, specifically to the two young Australians DeJonge and especially Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”). They display a very real sense of sibling chemistry and an almost improvisatory sense of comic timing that make their interactions a joy to watch even if what’s going on around them is typical haunted-house stuff. While the film never devolves into some kind of Wayans Brothers-like parody, seeing Tyler channel his inner Drake is the worth price of admission alone (be sure to stay for the beginning of the end-credits).
Likewise, McRobbie (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Dunagan (“Just Like a Woman”) play the grandparents with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek tone without spilling over into overkill. It’s a tightrope everyone manages to walk with skill.
Shyamalan is known for his patented twist endings but, thankfully, he seems less concerned about it this time, instead focusing on telling a good, fun story in place of just conjuring a good gimmick. This is all the more surprising coming after the cumbersome and joyless “After Earth,” one of the worst major films of 2013.
Granted, “The Visit” is lightweight. It doesn’t have the emotional resonance of “The Sixth Sense,” but it’s a welcome return to form for a director who seemed doomed to a future of resting on laurels and remembering better days.