It happened. It finally happened. After all these years, and following a series of creative and commercial failures, M Night Shyamalan has finally returned to the well which his career sprang from and here we have The Visit, a goofy but nonetheless effective small-scaled horror-comedy that reassures anyone who still cares that Shyamalan is still capable of making something worth a damn. About a decade ago, Shyamalan’s typical creative devices and stylish tricks were extremely familiar to even the most casual of filmgoers. But after a series of peculiar duds and failed jaunts into larger scaled blockbuster filmmaking, his brand of melancholic, twist-driven domestic drama feels as fresh now as it did when he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense over fifteen years ago, albeit to less successful results. Anyone going into this expecting another smash hit on the level of his best films will be sorely disappointed. However, if one was to put this into the same context as most of Shyamalan’s earlier works – i.e. essentially being a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, or in this case closer to the likes of Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? – then it should be a good time.
The initial setup is as follows: a young brother and sister are sent by their mother to spend a week visiting their grandparents whom they’ve never met before due to their mother’s estranged relationship with them, while she goes away on a cruise with her new boyfriend following her separation from the kids’ father. And seeing as how the daughter is a would-be filmmaker in training, she seeks to catch the entire thing on camera as part of a faux-documentary of sorts (hence the found footage angle). At first everything goes swimmingly, but eventually weird things start to happen – especially after 9:30 PM – and the kids begin to suspect that something sinister may be afoot with “Nana” and “Pop Pop.”
One of the most immediately striking aspects about The Visit (aside from the found footage angle, which we’ll get to in a little) is the dichotomy between the old and the young. It’s a film that preys upon a somewhat cruel, but nonetheless common truth, in that very young people sometimes find their elderly counterparts to be quite strange and are often made uncomfortable by them. However unfounded these feelings are, it provides a lot of potential for quite a few scenarios which start out comically awkward but eventually become more and more dangerous as the film goes on. And with such a limited number of cast members, it’s crucial that every part is handled well and thankfully this is the case here. The child actors in this fare much better than either of Shyamalan’s last two child-led efforts. And the grandparents manage to come across three-dimensional and engaging as well, while also providing quite a significant threat when it counts, or at least a bigger threat than the evil old timers from South Park.
Now onto the whole ‘found footage’ angle, or to be more accurate, the ‘mockumentary’ angle. While it’s handled fairly well, and having the lead character attempting to make a documentary about the trip is a plausible enough justification for the format, it still leaves a few things to be desired. Firstly, why Shyamalan would choose to enforce a style that limits some of his greatest strengths, i.e. his skillful combination of slow, understated pacing and tone to achieve a consistent mood of building dread, is slightly puzzling. And the musical score by his regular collaborator James Newton Howard is sorely missed as well. But to be fair, this is a stylistic choice that distinguishes this film from everything else he’s done before. It’s just that the film would’ve been a bit more accessible had it been left to ordinary narrative storytelling, as is the case with the majority of post-Paranormal Activity found footage horror films. Not a deal-breaker, but it merits making note of.
Destined to be his most divisive film in years, The Visit finds M. Night Shyamalan right back in his comfort zone, much to the relief of many anxious film fans everywhere. Like it or hate it, this is just what he needed to get his career back on track after so many gigantic failures. Here’s hoping he doesn’t piss away all this rekindled good faith too soon.