What if the rural couple in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" stepped out of the painting to become villains in a gothic psycho horror film?
That's the black comic hook to "The Visit," M. Night Shyamalan's ramshackle attempt to bounce back from the debacle of "After Earth." Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould play 15-year-old Becca and 13-year-old Tyler, who travel from Philadelphia to some place called Masonville for a weeklong visit with their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), whom they've never seen.
The plan is for their unhappily divorced mother (Kathryn Hahn) to go on a cruise with her boyfriend while the kids are in the countryside. Becca, a precocious camera freak, also wants to make a documentary about visiting her mother's hometown. She hopes to understand why her mother and grandparents have been estranged.
Nana and Pop Pop seem pretty normal until night falls, when Becca stumbles on a suddenly zombie-like Nana vomiting on her wood floor.
The honorable tradition of American moviemakers wringing laughs and gasps from bucolic lunatics dates back to "Murder, He Says" (1945). Unfortunately, "The Visit" isn't part of it. Shyamalan's script puts down reality shows, but this shocker works on the level of a game show, compelling audiences to yell out advice for Becca and Tyler as they steer through one trouble spot after another. This writer-director depends on hoary provocations. He fills the soundtrack with the creaks and groans of the family manse, he hides secrets in a shed and a basement, and he shoots a ghoulish figure speeding past a fixed camera, a la "Paranormal Activity." This is largely just another herky-jerky "found footage" thriller, though better lighted than most, thanks to cinematographer Maryse Alberti.
Shyamalan also tosses in red herrings, like Becca's search for something she calls "the elixir," along with even redder flags so obvious you'd think they must be satirical, like having Nana and Pop Pop work as counselors at a psychiatric hospital. Until the final twist, most ticket buyers will be too far ahead of the storytelling to squeal, jump or laugh on cue.
Sassy, hyperactive Tyler, a rap aficionado who uses pop idols like Katy Perry as curse words, realizes almost immediately that he and his sister are in danger. Tyler is amusing when he raps about Nana's pineapple upside-down cake. (All the actors, young and old, are troupers.) But the movie rarely exploits the comical idea that Becca, the family intellectual, believes Nana's weirdness can be explained by sundown syndrome, a state of confusion that afflicts some people with dementia.
Shyamalan has said he wanted this film to depict the healing of a fractured family. Divorce has traumatized both kids. Becca can't look in the mirror because of a bad self-image, and Tyler has become a germophobe. But Becca's self-loathing hardly figures in the plot, unless it's the underlying reason why she climbs into an oven when Nana asks her to clean it from inside. Tyler's neurosis simply lays the groundwork for a gross-out gag centered on Pop Pop's incontinence.
The director's big hits ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable") rely on two talents: building an atmosphere of dread and creating grand finales that make audiences rethink what they've just seen. In "The Visit," he veers haphazardly from brutal slapstick to heartbreak and lets his ending dribble into anticlimax. On the moviemaker's own terms, "The Visit" is sham Shyamalan.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence, nudity, brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes