M. Night Shyamalan is revitalized by his latest, intimate horror film.
The last decade has not been kind to M. Night Shyamalan, but rather a mix of audible groans and declining ticket sales. A stark contrast from his rise to become a household name, or as Newsweek boldly proclaimed across their cover -“The Next Spielberg”. In fact I remember the night my parents came home after seeing The Sixth Sense, still in a flurry of whispers as the babysitter left. That has all since vanished, with fewer looking to indulge Shyamalan’s rampant “cleverness”, let alone excitedly discuss the likes of After Earth or Lady in the Water. So I suppose the question becomes: After ten years of indifference, should you care about The Visit? In short- yes. In long – read on.
The Visit tells the story of Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two siblings who’ve grown up without their Grandparents due to a long gestating family trauma. Finally after years spent ostracized, the Grandparents, John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan), reach out with the proposition of a week long visit to finally meet the children. Rebecca, hoping to heal the relationship between her Mother (Kathryn Hahn) and the pair, decides to film the visit under the guise of a documentary. After arriving at the train station, Tyler and Rebecca are whisked off to their Grandparent’s Pennsylvania cabin for a trip that grows progressively more unsettling as everyone sheds the veil of comfort.
Something is clearly not right here and Shyamalan does a great job establishing this tumultuous visit without it ever falling too heavily into the tropes of the found footage genre. His awareness of the confines of the camera injects an immediate intimacy into the narrative as well as a terrifying sense of claustrophobia. This duality is handled expertly, resulting in what could very well be a home movie and unlike the more recent found footage films, it always feels like someone is actually behind the camera. In this case it’s often the precocious and cinematically-inclined Rebecca, Shyamalan’s diegetic explanation for why the film – well, looks and feels like a film. Tyler also jumps in at points, using the camera’s focus for his own goofy antics and investigations – not to mention a chronicle of his rise as a gifted amateur rapper. Combined, the on and off-screen identities offer a great portrayal of two siblings struggling with themselves and their increasingly dire situation.
Those looking for a good scare will definitely feel at home at Grandma’s house. The Visit runs the gamut of scare tactics without ever feeling cheap and the sheer variety is enough to stay increasingly entertained. But it’s not just about jump-scares, Shyamalan smartly lingers on odd exchanges and calls attention to the alien environment that is assuming the roles of grandchild and grandparent without the basis of a previous relationship. It’s the real deal, with fear slowly accumulating as a whole rather than being segmented by specific moments.
This tension is peppered with humorous lulls that help establish our leads and ease us into the darkness. It’s a welcome change of pace from the self-importance that choked Shyamalan’s later films. And these beats never feel out of character, a testament to how well DeJonge and Oxenbould sell their sibling bond. Make no mistake, Shyamalan hasn’t shed his comfort zone completely and there is a twist that is competently masked for much of the film. While it could have gone a number of directions, several of which Shyamalan isn’t above teasing, the result feels right, with far more at stake than the phony haunted house storytelling of the Paranormal Activities of the past.
Unfortunately the story does hinge a little too heavily on using the ailments of the elderly as a justification for the bizarre events that unfold. Which feels a little sloppy, and never like it’s the kids leaping to that conclusion but instead the film forcing it upon them as a diversion. Shyamalan’s hand seems equally forced when attempting to resolve the children’s character arcs within the last fifteen minutes. Rather than building to a natural conclusion, the moments happen exactly when they’re needed, devoid of any emotional satisfaction and strictly for narrative catharsis. The same can be said about the film’s ending which overstays its welcome and offers up a message that borders on speaking directly to the audience in a sort of meta-apology.
Despite these gripes, the limitations Shyamalan has built in place for himself seem to revitalize his sense of storytelling. At this scale The Visit can only impress, and slowly rebuild the trust Shyamalan has lost over the course of his career. Questionable accolades aside, maybe we can start looking forward to what he does next without our claws at the ready.
The Visit was released in theaters on September 11th, 2015.