Though The Surprise Visit is hoping it can bank some interest on the fact that it’s “Based on a true story”, the fact that there’s no history attached to such a statement leaves Nick Lyon’s occasional thriller in the company of many other genre flicks that advertise similar sentiments in their best bid to add intrigue to an otherwise standard narrative.
The film centres itself around junkies and expecting parents Casey (Rob Riordan) and Annabelle (Jacqi Vene) who, upon learning of their impending parenthood, decide to give up their drug habits and make a play for the straight and narrow. It all sounds so reasonable, but this duo don’t exactly seem like the types to execute such a cookie cutter plan without resorting to some type of crime – especially Casey – so we are unsurprised when he hatches a plan to rob a neighbouring home in order to make a quick buck.
The neighbouring home being both occupied by residents who knew Casey as a young boy, as well as being the employ of his father (Eric Roberts) means there’s some emotional stakes tied to Casey’s decision, but, sadly, The Surprise Visit not adhering to any type of nuance or subtlety means we ultimately have little care for what happens to either party. Casey is just a terrible person, and no amount of emphasis on his drug habit is going to convince us otherwise. Annabelle is the most shrill of characters, and though she’s clearly heavily under the influence of both Casey and whatever substance she favours, there’s no emotional connection or understanding of her for us to care. And the victims here – Juliette (Serah Henesy) and Daniel (Johnny Santiago) – have little development that the only reason we muster any investment in them is that they simply aren’t Casey and Annabelle.
Ultimately, it’s only Roberts’ Hugh that we stand behind. The idea that he would have to choose between his son – and, by extension, his grandson – and the household that has treated him so kindly over the years is one that screenwriter Stephen Meier and story artists Henesy and Nathan Cowles don’t utilise to its full potential. Setting The Surprise Visit in the realms of the home invasion thriller makes sense, but even then it fails to deliver on any thrills or elaborate set-pieces, with so much of the brief 86 minute running time devoted to Casey and Annabelle bickering about how they navigate the situation they’ve found themselves in.
Whilst the film may have its share of unsavoury ingredients, director Lyons at least deserves props for working within such limited budget restraints and for wrapping the story up in a manner that I suspect most studio projects wouldn’t have opted for. Had some of the acting been more fine-tuned and a little more development been afforded to the characters, The Surprise Visit could have done enough to earn itself a welcome reception, but, as it stands, this is a houseguest best turned away.
The Surprise Visit is now screening in select theatres across the United States. An Australian release is yet to be determined.