Seventy-five-year-old Deanna Dunagan is a scream in The Visit. Like, you will scream. Early on in the movie, her character, referred to by almost everyone as Nana, decides to join her grandchildren in their impromptu game of hide-and-seek under the house. She charges out of the darkness, gray hair obscuring her face, moving on all fours at an impossible gallop while muttering about how she's going to get the two kids scrambling to escape. She scares the bejesus out of them, and out of the audience, and then, when everyone hurls themselves out into the sunlight, she stands up, dusts herself off, and merrily announces she's making chicken pot pie, like a Norman Rockwell grandmother crossed with something out of The Grudge.
Like fellow creepy new release Goodnight Mommy, it's a housebound horror movie about characters trapped in a remote location with caretakers who may be out to get them. The unexpectedly solid, giggly-shrieky The Visit is the latest budget horror flick from Blumhouse Productions as well as a modest, much-needed comeback vehicle for M. Night Shyamalan. But more than anything, it's a movie rooted in the powerlessness that's part of being a kid.
Its young leads, Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are assured again and again by the adults in their lives that Nana and Pop Pop's (Peter McRobbie) strange behavior is just a side effect of getting old. After all, they're teenagers — what the hell do they know? So even as their weeklong visit in remote Pennsylvania gets more and more alarming, they stay put, trying to believe that everything's fine.
Like most main characters of found-footage movies, Rebecca and Tyler are immensely annoying — Rebecca's aspiring film-student blather may be even worse than Tyler's white-boy freestyling — but it's at least in part because the format requires them to do some dumb things, like sneak into the spooky basement they were told not to enter. Besides, the fact that they're grating has no bearing on their vulnerability, in which they have to trust that a pair of strangers will care for and protect them because they're family, however estranged. They're good kids — they don't want to alarm their mother (Kathryn Hahn) while she's on vacation, and they're trying to be compassionate to the elderly. So maybe Nana seems to go feral every night after 9:30, and Pop Pop keeps insisting he has a costume party to get to, but that's normal old-folks stuff, right?
While Dunagan swerves between frail and affectionate and ghoulish and terrifying, the possibly monstrous maternal figure in the Austrian Goodnight Mommy is aloof and in recovery from a facial surgery. She (Susanne Wuest) and her twin sons, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), are staying out in a secluded house by a lake in the woods. Sleek and modern, covered with big windows on which the blinds are quickly drawn, the place is a far cry from the Pennsylvania farmhouse of The Visit, but the young boys end up just as cut off as Rebecca and Tyler, roaming the area and keeping an eye on the bandaged woman they're starting to suspect isn't actually their mom.
If The Visit is a pleasant surprise, Goodnight Mommy is slightly deflating in the wake of its own spectacularly creepy trailer, though it summons up a steady sense of dread and features some beautiful, unsettling cinematography. For most of its run, the film, directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, keeps to the point of view of its main character, wandering the forest with the children and watching them as they confer under the covers about their suspicions about their mother. She's certainly...off, with her half-heard phone conversations about no longer playing along, her bloody eyes, and her inexplicable impatience with one of the boys. Then there's that gleefully gross scene that may or may not be a dream in which the twins sneak into her bedroom at night and put a cockroach on her face, impassively watching it disappear into her mouth.
If their mother has actually been replaced by a stranger altered to look like her, there's little recourse for Elias and Lukas, who, to the outside world, are just children with a wild theory. The lone attempt they do make to ask for help finds them returned to the house with, essentially, a pat on the head. Who's going to trust two 10-year-olds with a story like that? Maybe not even the audience, as we grasp the extent to which the film's reality has been narrowed and filtered through kids with a limited understanding of what's going on around them.
If the tension in The Visit comes from a thwarted desire for the movie's young characters to call the cops, run away, or just get out of there, the tension in Goodnight Mommy owes everything to our not knowing who to trust. Things don't always need to come rushing out of the darkness to be frightening.