REVIEW: ‘The Visit’ surprises with humor as M. Night revisits horror

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Oh, to be a child in M. Night Shyamalan’s world.

Fending off ghosts, backwoods aliens, futuristic aliens — it ain’t easy. And now you can add old folks to the list of things youngsters must save themselves from with only the help of twists and shouts.

With the insular, found-footage “The Visit,” the once-great writer-director does a solid job in shaking off the label of a dud machine (Even though I thought he did that with “After Earth”) by going back to what he does best: A tonally unique brand of horror that isn’t terribly inventive yet exceptionally effective.

Think back to “The Sixth Sense” — it’s a ghost story littered with jump scares, just with the benefit of a seven-layer dip of thematics and symbolism to enhance the cinematic flavor. In fact, so many of Shyamalan’s early films that were well-received explore very basic stories while lovingly borrowing their feelings from the likes of Spielberg and Serling.

Somehow, “The Visit” takes many of the same elements of “Sixth Sense” and pops them into the oven after 16 years and reheats them — and manages to make it taste sort of new.

Tweens Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are shipped off to meet their estranged grandparents while Mom (Kathryn Hahn) takes a much-needed cruise. As the advertising tells us, empty-nesters Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) have flown over the cuckoo’s nest and are scaring the bejesus out of Becca and Tyler, who are recording it all as part of a documentary on Mom’s childhood.

Think back to “The Sixth Sense” — it’s a ghost story littered with jump scares, just with the benefit of a seven-layer dip of thematics and symbolism to enhance the cinematic flavor. In fact, so many of Shyamalan’s early films that were well-received explore very basic stories while lovingly borrowing their feelings from the likes of Spielberg and Serling.

Not unlike a much better horror film, “The Visit” mimics the title texts of “The Shining,” announcing each new day after successive nights of terror in which Becca and Tyler catch Nana creepily canvassing the hallways.

These sequences are effective, and Shyamalan paces each day the pair spend away from their mother with solid tension. The jump scares benefit accordingly.

But what truly sets “The Visit” apart from a world of other Blumhouse-produced found-footage scarefests is that it is genuinely funny — and that humor is intentional.

There’s no stuffiness or dedication to creating a trenchant sense of dread or spooky atmospherics. Becca and Tyler don’t take most of what they’re experiencing seriously, even joking about some of the frightening things they see. It’s precisely what kids would do in such a situation where the eccentricities are easily explained away by articles on the Internet.

This isn’t horror-comedy; it’s horror with a lot of comedy that serves two purposes: To remind us that it’s okay to jump in our seat at a simple scare executed properly, and to catch you off-guard when the final act turns even darker.

“The Visit” isn’t ground-breaking, but it will be surprising to those who have written off M. Night; yes, there’s a twist, but there’s no contrivance. It’s a big, scary and often goofy step in the right direction for both Shyamalan and the found-footage subgenre.

“The Visit” is rated PG-13. Running time: One hour, 34 minutes. Three stars out of five.