M. Night Shyamalan hated being called a one-trick-pony, so he took on “Last Airbender,” “The Happening” and “After Earth.” And proved he has just that one trick.
So he turns back to the formula that made him famous with “The Visit,” a faintly-creepy, lightly amusing horror comedy that promises a surprise twist and a hint of heart.
He’s gotten quite rusty at this, what with the clumsy and (hopefully) humbling fiascoes that preceded it. And truth be told, he took that formula and himself so seriously that he’s still not able to deliver a clean, lean and briskly-paced picture.
But even if this “Over the river and through the woods, there’s something WRONG at Granny’s house” is not particularly scary and only funny in too-obvious ways, its novel touches lift it beyond much of the sausage churned out by the Hollywood Horrorworks.
Mom (Kathryn Hahn) is long-estranged from her parents. But she’s got a new love in her life, and teen daughter Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13 year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are more than happy to go spend a week in snowy, rural Pennsylvania with the grandparents they never knew, just to give Mom a shot at happiness.
Becca’s an aspiring filmmaker, and even though Dad fled the family and Mom works at Walmart, she can afford got a two-camera set-up for her documentary tribute to her mother, a project she hopes will bring the estranged back together. If only Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) weren’t so…strange.
The kids are banned from the basement. “Mold,” they’re told. Pop Pop is always skulking off to the shed…for something. Bedtime is 9:30 p.m. — sharp. No leaving your room until dawn.
And Nana? She has spells. She wants Becca to climb into the oven to clean it. She snaps at any mention of their mom, her daughter. And the things Nana does in the dark would give any child the willies.
Here’s what works. The kids, especially Becca, are concerned for their mother. They Skype, and they’re reluctant to share their concerns with her at the risk of ruining her latest chance at love.
“I hate you spoiled brats,” Mom always signs off. “We hate you, too!” Cute.
The boy is an aspiring whitebread rapper, and a smart aleck. Wrong guy to have behind camera two. (And as tired a movie trope as shaky hand-held cameras in a horror movie.)
Random strangers they meet see the camera and share, “I used to be an actor myself,” and launch into soliloquies.
The grandparents, and their mom, keep passing off what’s the kids see happening to old age. And the kids, not knowing any better, buy it. “Confused old fools” and “Sundown Syndrome” make just enough sense to the precocious and very adult Becca. They’re scarred by their father’s abandonment of them, and a little slow to be scared over Nana’s late-night (Yikes!) nudity and Pop Pop’s episodes.
But the kids are too-perfect, pretty little models/child actors who never let us forget that. Becca’s pretentious tinsel talk is grating.
“This is the PERFECT cinematic image to open the documentary!”
Shyamalan has so few frights up his sleeve that his deliberate, portentous pacing gets away from him here. Again. It’s a 94 minute movie that plays much longer. It doesn’t build towards a breathless, violent climax.
It’s all over-explained, more like the deflating coda to Hitchcock’s “Psycho” or the “Yeah, and?” “surprise” of “The Village” than the gotcha of “Sixth Sense.”
The mystery isn’t deep, alas. And neither, as we’ve long suspected, is the filmmaker.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Credits: Written and directed by M. N ight Shyamalan. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:36