By Dan Cava
September 11, 2015
If you follow movies, you might be generally familiar with the career trajectory of America’s most mispronounced auteur. Or probably, most unpronounced. I always hear it like this: “Oh yeah, that guy, M. Night I-don’t-how-you-say-it. Shamasomething. Shamalama-ding-dong! [chuckle]…[silence]”. Anyway, after rising to box office and critical prominence with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan turned out a string of successful films: the fanboy/film-school favorite Unbreakable, the crowd-pleasing creeper Signs, and the labored but ambitious social parable The Village. But when Lady in the Water bombed with both audiences and reviewers in 2006, the infamously meticulous writer/director seemed to have succumbed to the foibles of success. The clever ideas grew increasingly silly, the precise dialogue more stilted, the controlled tone more dour, the famous twist endings more telegraphed and tedious. For almost 10 years, Shyamalan’s films have all seemed to break under the weight of their author’s ambitions.
Here’s the good news: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, The Visit, is the right balance of hoot and horror, and a much welcome return to freaky fun for the embattled director. The Visit is frightening, funny, fast, and– thank God– pretty frivolous. In a way, the great thing about The Visit is that is it’s not trying to be great. Where Shyamalan’s recent efforts have seemed so forced, this one is almost all entertainment.
The narrative and cinematic setup is really simple in a Hansel and Gretel sort of way. Young Becca and Tyler go to visit their Nana and Pop-pop for the first time, only their grandparents turn out to be a little strange, then very strange, and then everything goes to hell. Becca, a tweenager and the older of the two siblings, is a budding filmmaker and has decided to document the week-long trip with a couple of cameras, providing Shyamalan with a neat little justification to use the found-footage aesthetic popularized by Blair Witch, Cloverfield, and others. With very few exceptions, The Visit is a tidy four actor, two camera show.
If none of this sounds very new, I think that’s kind of the point. The Visit is like a remix of the past 15 years of horror with a dash of cleverness and a very healthy dose of humor thrown in. Shyamalan’s scares have always been inspired by our simplest collective phobias (aliens, dead people, monsters in the woods), and here he plays off another universal fear: the perceived “otherness” of very elderly. For fans of the genre, there are not-so-subtle nods to The Grudge, The Ring, Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Conjuring, Shyamalan’s own The Sixth Sense, even a few oldies like Psycho and Sunset Boulevard. We expect twists from Shyamalan, and The Visit has one (it’s pretty elegant, his best in years). Shyamalan also showed an aptitude towards balancing family humor and frights with Signs, and The Visit is easily Shyamalan’s funniest and jumpiest film. A handful of things, like Shyamalan’s deft handling of Becca and Tyler’s amateur camerawork and his decision to limit the movie’s sound design, are pretty ingenious if also somewhat familiar. The ingredients aren’t so much the surprise; it’s the fact that it all works.
The movie’s weaknesses are also familiar to Shyamalan films. Above I said that The Visit is “almost all entertainment.” Underneath all of the fun, Shyamalan attempts to give the movie a beating heart, a bit of emotional material involvement kids dealing with the fallout of a strained family relationship between their single mom and their grandparents. While a few of the more serious moments connect, the sentimentality that worked so well in The Sixth Sense sometimes feels a little forced here. Also, in order to pull off some of the scares and surprises that the movies attempts, Shyamalan laces the script with specificities that feel more like setups than character details. When Tyler tells his sister that, a long ago he once got so scared he was paralyzed, it’s not hard to imagine that this little oddity will manifest at a time most convenient for the film. The patchwork of clues and quirks mostly holds together, but it’s not hard to see the stitches.
And yet, when the whole theater is laughing and screaming and yelling instructions at the characters, you know The Visit is doing exactly what it’s creator hoped it would. The Visit is a minor work, to be sure, but it’s reach almost never exceeds its grasp. By the time we get to the wonderfully ghastly final act, Shyamalan has us in his ghoulish grip.
I’ve heard “return to form” thrown around a lot, and the phrase doesn’t completely apply here. The Visit’s lowbrow thrills are nothing like the high-minded high-wire act of Unbreakable’s hyper-specific camerawork, deliberate plotting, and post-modern comic book sensibilities. And yet by leaning into the small scale, laying on the jokes, and delivering the scares, The Visit successfully repackages the crowd-pleasing ingredients that made Shyamalan’s previous efforts so popular. It’s not new, it’s not groundbreaking, but it’s probably about as good as lightweight, diabolical fun gets. The crowd was pleased, and so too should be fans who’ve been awaiting M. Night Shyamalan’s next good movie.
Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars