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Terrifying 'The Visit' is a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan

It’s about time.

M. Night Shyamalan’s films have been in steady decline for more than a decade, to the point that the director’s name is practically a punchline. But “The Visit” is a return to form that will remind moviegoers that early hits like 1998’s “The Sixth Sense” weren’t just a dream.

Just make sure you understand what you’re in for with this one.

“The Visit” is a straightforward film with a simple plot: two kids spend a week with their grandparents, and slowly things get weird. For most of the film, you can’t tell if the grandparents’ behavior is simply the dark side of senility or something more wicked.

The visitors are Becca and Tyler (Australian actors Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), a pair of teens who are meeting their maternal grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents years before Becca and Tyler were born but has finally consented to let them visit while she goes on a cruise with her boyfriend.

Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem innocent enough, if a little too quirky to emote genuine apple pie warmth. They are awkward with their grandchildren and clearly uncomfortable with their new role.

Of course, anyone would be awkward if they were being followed around with a camera all the time. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and has chosen to document every moment of the trip and turn it into a gift for her mother.

It doesn’t take long before Becca starts getting bizarre material for her project. Pop Pop starts dressing himself in a tuxedo for an event that isn’t happening and confronts an innocent bystander on the street he thinks is following him. Nana becomes almost inconsolable whenever Becca brings up her mother. And when the kids venture outside the bedroom after their 9:30 p.m. bedtime, grandmother’s nocturnal behavior is even stranger.

The brilliance of this is that Shyamalan presents all this weirdness in a way that feels foreboding, especially through the eyes of a child. Yet taken individually, each event can be explained away by the treacherous advances of old age. For a filmmaker known for twist endings, you wonder if the twist is that you aren’t watching a horror movie at all.

The acting is solid on all counts, but Dunagan really makes things work, hitting just the right mark of ambiguity for Nana to keep things going. Rather than rely exclusively on jump scares (and be advised, there are jump scares), Shyamalan allows Dunagan to be frightening without always having to leap at the camera. (The found-footage style helps with this, even if it can be kind of tedious to deal with.)

It’s a suspenseful mix, but the best news is that “The Visit” saves its best (or worst?) for last. The final 20 minutes of this film are horrifying, suspenseful, surprising and darkly comic, all at the same time. You might find yourself laughing out loud while gripping your seat in terror.

That being said, the manic ending strains at the film’s conservative PG-13 rating. While no individual moment might justify an R — technically you don’t see the most disturbing events — their cumulative effect puts “The Visit” well past the threshold of sensitive viewers.

Many will feel Shyamalan pushes things too far with at least a half-dozen jaw-dropping, “I can’t believe that just happened” moments. It’s just enough to make it difficult to recommend “The Visit” in good conscience, in spite of its many strengths.

But for seasoned horror fans and people who have been waiting to see the “Sixth Sense” director deliver the kind of film we knew he was capable of, “The Visit” is a reassurance that even if Shyamalan’s characters are crazy, our confidence in him wasn’t.

“The Visit” is rated PG-13 for sustained suspenseful sequences, violence, profanity (including a single use of the F-word), vulgarity and some non-sexual nudity.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.