It’s almost obligatory to preface any discussion of M. Night Shyamalan with a how-have-the-mighty-fallen musing. He has had some very wayward credits lately, mostly in an attempt to get away from the auteur template he set for himself with The Sixth Sense since, after the scorn heaped (in part unfairly) on The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening he has scouted around for another commercial mode and got stuck with The Last Airbender and After Earth. This also finds MNS trying to hook into a new form out of his comfoprt zone, in that it’s a found footage film made for the medium-budget Blumhouse shingle and a psychologocial thriller rather than a supernatural story. However, the fact is that he’s quite suited to this mode of filmmaking – his character is carried over in a certain well-made play aspect whereby every seeming throwaway and aside pays off in plot or emotional terms and a situation that most filmmakers would be happy to play as a simple ordeal is in the end a character-building experience (though other recent Blumhouse productions, The Gift and Curve, go the same route).
Shy teenager Becca (Olivia DeJinge), a budding filmmaker who has been unable to look herself in the mirror since her father walked out on her mother (Kathryn Hahn), and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), an obnoxious white rapper whose overconfidence belies a terror of dirt and a tendency to freeze in a crisis, set out to document a trip they are making to the snowy backwoods to spend a week with grandparents they’ve never met. Still unable to cope with the fracturing of her parents’ marriage, Becca hopes to find out what went wrong between her mother and her parents on the day she left home. Greeted at the station by Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), the kids are taken to an idyllic farmhouse without WiFi and treated to biscuits and folksy charm … but rapidly catch on that there are many things wrong with the old couple. Pop Pop is incontinent and collects his full diapers in a shed and sometimes gets dressed up for a costume party at odd times of day – he also recalls being fired from his job for claiming to see something white with yellow eyes around the factory. Nana has a sundowning syndrome and goes feral after dark, clawing and crawling around the house naked – she also gets under the house and plays tag/hide and seek with the kids in a creepy-aggressive mode, dodges questions by throwing scary fits and sometimes sits in a rocking chair laughing to keep her terrors at bay. Oh, and the kids aren’t allowed to go into the basement because of mould and Nana gets biscuit mix on the camera-eye of Becca’s computer.
It’s not so much that there’s a twist coming – here, the penny hangs suspended for a long time after audiences have guessed the real set-up, nudged by hints delivered by a couple of visitors who show up when the old folks are mysteriously not around, only to drop at the climax when the mechanics of terror are fully engaged and the sinister gameplay (a manic game of Yahtzee) is ramping up. The kids aren’t terribly likeable – Tyler’s rapper act is called out for misogyny – but they aren’t stupid either, and both are acute psychologically: Tyler deflects criticism by pointing out his sister’s neuroses and Becca interviews Nana cleverly by asking her to tell stories rather than reminisce only to be bombarded with a fairytale-alien abduction fantasy that would in an earlier MNS film have turned out to be true but is here as sad-creepy as the delusion of the paranoid guy in They Look Like People. Dunagan and McRobbie, you-know-the-face actors who’ve been doing bits for years, score substantial maniac roles and are both plausible and terrifying – as much for the moments when they show self-awareness, express sympathy or calmly and sympathetically explain what’s wrong with their other half as for the insane leers and sudden jumps. The climax, of course, confronts both kids with their worst fears – making for several shocks that demonstrate Shyamalan hasn’t lost his knack for springing scares.