After floundering badly with his studio movies in recent years — and in my opinion not having made a successful film since his huge hit “The Sixth Sense” back in 1999 —M. Night Shyamalan has rebooted his career by writing, directing and fully-financing an indie thriller called “The Visit,” shot in mock documentary fashion.
It works terrifically — funny, scary, clever — and does in fact harken back to “The Sixth Sense” with its mounting tension, odd happenings and a twist you don’t see coming.
Let’s not get carried away though: It does not have the wow factor of “The Sixth Sense” nor a movie star in the main role. But it does have children and older adult actors embroiled in a seemingly ordinary visit where something doesn’t feel right and the situation keeps getting creepier.
Those child actors are, curiously enough since the movie takes place in the filmmaker’s preferred locale of Pennsylvania, from Australia. Olivia DeJonge, better known in her native country, plays Becca, 15, a burgeoning documentary filmmaker who decides to film a visit with her grandparents.
Fellow Aussie Ed Oxenbould, who was most impressive in the title role of an otherwise forlorn family comedy, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” plays Becca’s younger brother, Tyler. She hands him a camera too so each records from different angles the events of a very odd weekend with their grandparents.
The children are still suffering from desertion by their father a while back. Becca has more or less taken Tyler under her wings as he acts out occasionally with OCD symptoms. He also has an alter ego, “T-Diamond,” a rapper of exceptional abilities which allows Tyler to provide much of the comic relief in the movie.
So these are two lively kids who set off on the adventure in rural Pennsylvania by visiting grandparents they’ve never met. Their hard-working single mom, played very well but mostly on Skype by Kathryn Hahn — who usually is found in comedy roles — has not spoken to her parents since the day she stormed out of their farmhouse to elope with her much older boyfriend.
She’s off on a cruise with her current boyfriend while she has determined that now is as good a time as any for them to Meet the Grandparents.
Greeting them at the train station are Nan (Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Scottish veteran actor Peter McRobbie). A little bewildered by the cameras and other devices that come with children these days, the grandparents take to the “documentary” filmmaking well enough.
Nan even participates in a hide-and-seek game in the crawl space under the front porch. Of course, the youngsters find that participation a little odd as they also find Pop Pop’s constant chopping of fire wood and visits to a tool shed. The secret behind those visits proves pretty mundane in the end— if not a little gross.
Much stranger though are sounds throughout the house after 9:30 at night. Eventually, through Pop Pop and the Internet, they learn that Nan suffers from a thing called “sundowning,” a condition (you can look it up) of confusion and restlessness in some older folks, often suffering from dementia, that seems to occur after nightfall.
Tyler decides to set his camera up in the living room one night to see exactly what Nan does. But Becca thinks this is immoral and not a correct approach for budding documentarians in any event.
All footage in the movie comes ostensibly from the youngsters’ cameras although of course Maryse Alberti (“The Wrestler”) is the actual cinematographer. The week’s stay gets punctuated on screen with red letters against the snowy landscape to indicate the countdown of days: Tuesday Morning, Wednesday Morning, etc.
Becca insists she wants “visual tension” in her film, a tension between what the camera sees and what it doesn’t see, just outside the frame. Let’s just say she gets her wish.
The movie proceeds in an almost comic manner as the two young filmmakers try to scare one another even as they puzzle out the increasingly strange behavior of their grandparents.
Pop Pop suffers from some sort of paranoia as he thinks a stranger is following him. Nan breaks down on camera as Becca questions her about Becca’s mom and estrangement from her own parents.
The film rides on its young protagonists and the two actors are superb. DeJonge has an angelic face and poise beyond her years. She wonderfully plays a precocious youngster who has absorbed too many film terms without fully understanding them.
Oxenbould clowns perfectly; sometimes he even seems to be ribbing the audience for its own jumps and shrieks.
“The Visit” like “The Sixth Sense” is a backtrack movie. After it’s over, you find yourself backtracking over the entire movie searching for the clues and little tricks within Shyamalan’s screenplay that you skirted over the first time.
The movie comes without a music soundtrack, which was a smart means for keeping things as real as a mocumentary needs to be. Universal Pictures is releasing the movie but make no mistake it’s a low-budget indie. And a fresh start for M. Night Shyamalan.
Opens: September 11, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: A Blinding Edge Picture/Blumhouse production
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh
Director/screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, M. Night Shyamalan
Executive producers: Steven Schneider, Ashwin Rajan
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Naaman Marshall
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Editor: Luke Ciarrocchi
PG-13 rating, 94 minutes