Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Out of 5: 3.5
Many of the horrific and dramatic moments in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 boondoggle The Happening are so strange, so bizarre, so out-of-place, that it’s tempting to think he was aiming to make a comedy. However, Shyamalan’s reputation at that time was not that of a comedy director; he was the thriller guy, a flimmaker who dropped natural characters into a supernatural world and then liked to drop the twist-hammer on them at the end. Only now, seven years later, are Shyamalan’s comedy chops finally revealed in earnest with The Visit. It’s a thriller that provides many things, including a few impressive scares and a twist ending, but most of all it provides the (intentional) laughs that were sorely missing from Shyamalan’s filmography.
Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are a pair of teens – from Shyamalan’s hometown of Philadelphia, of course – headed to their grandparents’ home in the boonies for a week, while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a trip. There’s some family drama behind the scenes to explain why Mom doesn’t want to join them, which leads Becca, an amateur filmmaker, to decide to make a documentary about the trip. However, once MeeMaw and PaPaw (veteran character actors Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) are in front of the camera, some strange things begin to happen.
Yes, Shyamalan has made a found-footage horror movie, under the watchful hand of producer Jason Blum, who produced other titans in that genre such as the Paranormal Activity films, Sinister, and Insidious. However, it’s best to compare The Visit to a lesser-seen Blum-produced horror film: 2012’s The Bay, from Barry Levinson. Like Shyamalan, Levinson hadn’t had a hit in a while before joining up with Blum; like Shyamalan, he was encouraged to work in a style he never had before (The Bay is straight horror, with none of Levinson’s trademark drama or comedy). Perhaps Blum has discovered some sort of magic potion to revive directors’ careers with found-footage movies, for The Visit, much like the deeply underrated The Bay, is as good a film as its director has made in a decade.
It should be no surprise that The Visit looks great. As badly written as Shyamalan films like The Last Airbender and After Earth were, the man never lost his skill to direct a movie. Working with director of photography Maryse Alberti, he has given this film a depth and width that few found-footage directors even bother to develop. The camera is always perfectly placed to indicate Becca’s semi-competence as a filmmaker, and Tyler’s complete inexperience as her cameraman, while still capturing everything that needs to be in the shot to scare us. In one superior scene, Tyler seems to be incompetently zooming the camera on his sister as a joke while she speaks, but the filmmakers steer into that skid, zooming more and more until the blown shot turns the scene into a moment of uncanny dramatic power.
As much as being well-shot matters, the real secret to The Visit‘s success is that it is funny indeed. The effects of age on the human body and mind can be by turns absurd and horrific, and Shyamalan plays in that space in a way that few movies have ever dared. A scene will start out as many found-footage scenes do, with one of the leads doing something foolish (leaving their room at night, entering the abandoned shed, etc) while taking a selfie. But the scary thing which follows isn’t an obvious jump-scare or monster; instead, it’s something which is a little bit strange and a little bit absurd, as possibly explained by the indignities of aging as by any supernatural cause.
Conversely, getting comedy out of such indignities could be seen as making sport of the elderly in a cruel way, except that Shyamalan employs enough tricks of the horror-movie trade that mere dementia feels like a welcome comedic relief compared to what the audience might have been thinking instead. There are also a great many jokes about the fact that Becca is overly pretentious as a director, taking such a lark of a project far too seriously; as Kevin Cecil mentions in his great analysis of Shyamalan’s career, putting on such airs nearly destroyed Shyamalan as a filmmaker, and finally being able to laugh at himself as it suits his movies might be a powerful weapon for him going forward.
Caught in that unusual space between “they’re old!”, “they’re weird!”, and “they’re evil!”, DeJonge and Oxenbould each deliver terrific performances. Once the weird things start happening, they have great comic timing but also a powerful understanding of that moment when you stop giggling and start wondering if your life is in danger. Not a moment of the heavy drama going on with their mother is on-screen, so they’re left to imply how bad it is to the audience with their performances, and they nail those scenes too. Plus, shockingly, both are Australian – it’s scary how early they teach actors to do flawless American accents these days.
The Visit is not a perfect film. A running joke, which posits Tyler as a rapper who thinks he’s great and is actually awful, falls flat repeatedly. The climax is overlong, not as scary as it thinks it is, and generally steers too close to “making sport of the demented elderly” territory. However, there’s so much to recommend for The Visit in its first 80 minutes or so, that these issues don’t sink it. Instead, this film signals that bright times could still be ahead for M. Night Shyamalan; if he can do this well on a mere $5 million budget, he may yet recapture the magic that he controlled so well at the turn of the century.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.