Credit: <i>The Visit</i>

Film historian Foster Hirsch once used the term “finger exercise” to describe Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948), meaning it was a relatively unambitious genre picture that nonetheless allowed a skilled director to take delight in his craft. I thought of that description while watching M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which opens commercially today. The film belongs to a prolific genre—the found-footage horror movie—and while it doesn’t reinvent the form, it contains a number of effective scares and almost as many laughs. Shyamalan takes obvious care in establishing atmosphere, luring viewers into the movie’s central mystery and interrupting the seduction with jokes and false alarms. I wouldn’t call The Visit a must-see, but if you see it, you should see it with as big an audience as you can find. Like any good fun-house horror movie, it benefits from the screams and laughter of a crowd.

Is it giving too much away to say that The Visit isn’t very eventful? For much of its duration, Shyamalan simply vamps on a few ideas, playing his audience through the manipulation of tone. The premise suggests a modern update on the Hansel and Gretel story, as a single mother sends her teenaged son and daughter to spend a week in the country with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met. The old folks seem friendly at first, but their behavior gets increasingly strange. Are they hiding something devious or are they just odd?

Shyamalan milks this question for as much suspense as he can, devising new creepy behaviors for the grandparents to exhibit every few scenes. Sometimes he alerts our morbid curiosity just to disarm it with a punch line. In one scene the boy investigates his grandparents’ barn and encounters a vile smell—it turns out that Pop Pop’s incontinent and uses the building to store his dirty diapers. At other times Shyamalan doesn’t explain the source of the strangeness, as in the scenes that take place at night. For reasons they don’t properly explain, the grandparents forbid the kids to leave their room after 9:30 PM. The kids try to go to bed, but they hear spooky sounds on the other side of their door that keep them awake. (The boy eventually opens the door a couple times, but I won’t reveal what he finds.)

Shyamalan respects the conventions of the found-footage genre, only showing us what the kids can see. They’re filming their visit for a documentary the girl’s making about her family, and the movie takes the form of the footage they shoot. The girl wants the project to be cinematically interesting, though, and so she often schools her brother—with whom she’s trusted one of her two cameras—in such things as mise-en-scene, camera movement, and “ironic counterpoint.” (This would suggest a critique on Shyamalan’s part of how styleless found-footage movies can be.) True to her mission, The Visit is a good-looking film. It was shot by Maryse Alberti (the cinematographer of numerous Alex Gibney documentaries), who achieves a warm, yellow-heavy color palette and some nice effects with natural light. The grandparents’ farmhouse seems like a lovely place, all the better to hide the menace possibly lurking inside.

Just as The Visit exceeds expectations for how a found-footage movie looks, the characters feel more nuanced than one is accustomed to finding in the genre. The kids seem like real kids, which is to say they’re goofy and vulnerable and not always cute. Both siblings developed self-esteem issues after their father abandoned them, which often inhibit them from acting on their feelings. Their mother is no less neurotic. She harbors guilt over the falling-out she had with her parents years before (which is why the kids have never met them until now), and she exhibits anxieties about dating after her divorce. Shyamalan shows mother and children conversing via Skype, and he illustrates through these scenes the regrets they all share over their broken family. One hopes that the grandparents aren’t really evil, since these unhappy characters have already put up with enough.