The Visit ✮✮✮

The Deep Darkies

In scholarly treatises on horror — yes, I know, that sounds oxymoronic — it’s called the “startle effect.” You know the moment: It’s when someone or something lunges into the frame, clamps onto a tantalizing shoulder, causing the audience to jump out of its skin en masse. Classic startle effects can be found in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” when Carrie White’s hand shoots up from the grave, and the original “Alien,” when John Hurt develops serious tummy trouble. Another prime example: Alan Arkin’s leap from the dark visitin “Wait Until Dark.”

M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” — or: The Brothers Grimm Meet Reality-TV — contains several first-rate startle effects, as well as a few seriously troubling domestic situations. (How this Universal release scooted by with a PG-13 may be the biggest mystery here.) Some are using the C-word, as in comeback. It’s certainly the horror-fantasy specialist’s scariest and most assured outing since “The Sixth Sense,” released 16 years ago. In places, when the ax comes out, it even conjures memories of Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel.

Like most of Shyamalan’s films, this one is set in the deceptively bucolic countryside outside Philadelphia. Fifteen-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are sent to their grandparents’ farm for a week to give their single mother (an excellent Kathryn Hahn) some alone time to pursue a promising relationship. Mother isn’t there for the handoff because she’s not talking to her parents; they’ve been estranged for years.

Armed with a digital camera, aspiring auteur Becca intends her doc-in-progress to patch things up between her mother and grandparents, who, though a tad eccentric, seem harmless enough. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) bakes cookies and cleans; Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) putters around in the yard and chops wood. Nothing too alarming about this.

House rules? Lights out is at 9:30 sharp. And no nosing around in the basement.

“We’re old people,” apologizes Pop Pop, head bowed. This is his all-purpose explanation for all the strange doings. And for a day or two it suffices.

Until … Nana joins in a game of hide-and-seek under the house and Pop Pop keeps disappearing into the shed.

I don’t know about you, but after all those “Paranormal Activities” sequels, I’ve had my fill of herky-jerky found footage chillers. More frustrating than frightening, they make you want to throttle the seemingly woozy cameraman. Shyamalan, like the creator of Spain’s “REC,” breathes new life into the well-worn conceit. His lens-eye-view perspective, for a change, doesn’t feel restrictive or contrived. Becca, it’s established, is a budding talent behind the camera and her brother is a decent assistant. So we always feel in good hands. The in-joke: people are so used to cameras being stuck in their faces that they light up when the red light comes on. It’s their cue to haul out that senior-year soliloquy.

Shyamalan has always been good with kids, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Oxenbould and DeJonge, stand-ins for Hansel and Gretel, are charming and plucky without being over-the-top or obnoxious. Oxenbould, from Down Under, is especially good as the loving, mostly supportive younger brother who’d rather be rapping than schlepping sis’s equipment.

Stage veteran Dunagan, who looks and sounds like Lillian Gish in “Night of the Hunter,” and Woody Allen regular McRobbie are also well-cast as the weirdo grandparents who sometimes move and talk like automatons. Are they invaders from another galaxy? Or are they witch and warlock who have taken possession of Nana and Pop Pop? The latter seems most likely when Nana, battling “the deep darkies,” has Becca help out in the kitchen. “Would you mind getting in the oven to clean it?” she instructs more than asks. “Get farther in there … all the way in.”

“The Visit” is modest but effective. It’s also the scariest film since James Wan’s “The Conjuring.”

Welcome back to the dark side, M. Night —

THE VISIT ✮✮✮ With Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn. Directed, scripted by M. Night Shyamalan. 94 min. PG-13 (children in mortal jeopardy, slight profanity, disturbing images)

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