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Movie Review

M. Night Shyamalan’s slide reverses course in ‘The Visit’

“The Visit” stars Deanna Dunagan (left), Peter McRobbie, and Ed Oxenbould (forground).
“The Visit” stars Deanna Dunagan (left), Peter McRobbie, and Ed Oxenbould (forground).Universal Pictures photos/Universal Pictures

Don’t close the book on M. Night Shyamalan just yet. After a decade-long creative downward spiral that included uninspired duds like “The Happening” and “After Earth,” the onetime suspense icon best known for “The Sixth Sense” bounces back — and twists again — with “The Visit.” His tale of precocious teen siblings meeting their grandparents for the first time is a relentlessly tense journey into the bizarre, with jolts that linger and some nicely played melancholy. What’s more, the movie is often surprisingly, wickedly funny, as Shyamalan eases up on the self-seriousness that hurt his storytelling even before his extended slump.

The success of “The Visit” starts with the terrifically effective casting of its young leads, Aussie newbies Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible,” etc., etc.). Their characters, Becca and Tyler, are city kids whose single mom, Loretta (Kathryn Hahn), has been estranged from her own parents since eloping at 19. When the seniors reach out online, wistfully hoping to connect with their grandchildren, Becca insists that this is Loretta’s chance to tend to her neglected love life.

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Heck, Becca can even bring along her budding documentarian’s camera, and gently pose questions that might heal some old wounds. (The found-footage genre is overdone territory, of course, but Shyamalan navigates it adroitly, particularly in one late, striking scene that’s all siren lights and pounding rain.)

So off the kids go to the Pennsylvania boonies, where Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop Pop” (Peter McRobbie) are waiting to greet them at the train, and to serve them warm cookies back at their cozy farm. So far, so quaint — until the grandparents’ trickle of apparent old-age erraticism turns into a flood of crazy. Nana skitters around at odd hours like a Japanese horror waif, ragged and often nude. (Is there anything that classically trained Tony winner Dunagan isn’t up for here?) Pop Pop keeps making mysterious visits to his gnarly shed. Nana keeps nagging Becca to clean the oven for her — from the inside.

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The long-withheld explanation for the oldsters’ behavior is enough to make your stomach lurch. There’s also a late-game scatological shocker that goes waaay too far. (The film hedges its bets by goofing on the offending bit over the end credits.) But again, the ride is good, darkly edgy fun. Oxenbould even gets to show his smart-aleck side, making an amusing go of deliberately painful battle raps and family-friendly veiled profanity. It’s vintage Shyamalan, with a twist.

Movie Review

★ ★ ★

THE VISIT

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan . Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 94 minutes. PG-13 (disturbing thematic material including terror and violence, some nudity, brief language).