Shyamalan's best movie in over a decade is a wickedly entertaining horror romp with a sharp sense of humor.
There’s a yummy little narrative twist near the close of The Visit. The fact that it isn’t an earth-shattering or movie-defining cinematic surprise by any stretch is the surest sign of many that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has finally gotten his shit together (at least for one movie) after over a decade of sub-par offerings that made him the poster boy for squandered potential. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (both modern classics in my book) left audiences reeling with their mind-blowing late revelations, but with his subsequent films his craftsmanship dipped as he scrambled to wow us with his trademark twists (in addition to making two of the most egregiously bad big-budget movies of the last decade, After Earth and The Last Airbender). He hasn’t captured his former glory with his latest small-scale scare machine, but for the first time in a long time, he’s made a movie that simply works.
The story is a modern take on Hansel and Gretel, following teenager Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her wannabe-rapper pre-teen brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) visiting their maternal grandparents, who they’ve never met, for the first time. Their single mom (the versatile Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) for years following an ugly incident she doesn’t have the guts to share with the kids yet. Nana and Pop Pop seem a little strange at first, but at the kids’ age, aren’t all elderly people a little weird?
Nothing alarming happens over the first couple of days. Nana’s constantly baking them goodies and Pop Pop keeps himself busy with chores. Becca and Tyler soon discover, however, that Nana isn’t quite herself when the sun goes down. Pop Pop advises them to stay in their bedroom past their 9:30 curfew (bedtime!), but the mischievous Tyler (whose self-dubbed emcee name is “T-Diamond Stylus”) can’t resist peeking out the door when they hear mysterious, violent sounds echoing just beyond it. Seems Nana loses her mind and has a tendency to scurry about the house naked, vomiting and screeching like Gollum tripping on mushrooms.
The glue that holds the movie steady is a simple device; Becca’s an aspiring filmmaker, and she’s making a documentary about the trip and their family history. She’s brought along two DSLRs (manned by she and Tyler), and all the footage we see is ripped straight from the cameras’ memory cards. It’s one of the better found-footage horror movies to come out in recent years because the scenario makes perfect sense and the cameras are oh-so-much better than the grainy camcorders we’re used to characters swinging around. Because Becca’s a film geek, she’s constantly thinking of composition and “cinematic tension,” which basically gives Syamalan an excuse to make the movie look slick while adopting the handheld aesthetic when needed. A smart setup indeed.
Shyamalan wastes no time doling out creepy jump scares. Early on, the kids take the cameras under the porch (a maze of dark, blind corners) to play hide-and-seek. Soon enough, Nana joins the fun. What makes the sequence so scary is the first-person perspective the two cameras; with no establishing shots of any kind, we’re as lost and panicked as the kids are when we notice Nana skittering around on her hands and knees. My favorite scare sees Tyler setting up one of the cameras in the living room secretly. We see the room empty, and then we see Nana across the way, slamming the basement door over and over (in a nice touch, Shyamalan cuts to Becca’s camera in the bedroom as we hear the slamming echo through the house). Back to the living room and Nana slowly walks out of frame. Again, empty room. Then…boom! I saw the scare coming a mile away, and I still all but wet my pants.
Equally balanced with the scares are moments of real humor. This is the funniest movie Shyamalan’s ever made (besides The Happening, I guess), and most of the comedy stems from Oxenbould, who’s a veritable show-stealer. His white-boy rap routine is hilarious (freestyles abound) and he always seems to know how to make a scene funnier. The entire cast is pretty great, and the only thing that threw me a little was Dunagan’s casting. She’s actually quite ravishing at times, which I’m almost positive is unintentional, but nonetheless occasionally distracts from the fact that she’s supposed to be revolting (her flowing silver hair is glorious!). See? I’m distracted just writing about it. In all seriousness, the cast members each strike the perfect chord, and with Shyamalan holding up his end, it makes for a mostly rock-solid horror experience. Mostly.
The scares and laughs work without a hitch, but the dramatic piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit quite right. There are themes of familial anger, regret, and resentment (parental abandonment is a bitch) that leave little to no emotional impression. Throughout, Becca tries to convince Nana and Pop Pop to participate in sit-down interviews for the documentary, but each attempt falls apart when she brings up her mom, a touchy subject that clearly still strikes a chord. The movie stops dead when Tyler tells a long-winded story about a little league football game he lost for his team, a mistake he believes led to their father leaving the family. Every time the movie veered into family-drama territory, I had an immediate itch to get back to the bump-in-the-night stuff punctuated by unexpected laughs.
I mentioned a twist; don’t think about it too much. It comes, and it’s great, but the best stuff is in the lead-up and aftermath. Shyamalan’s working on a smaller scale here than he has in a long, long time, and it seems to be just what the doctor ordered. Unpretentious, scary, and wickedly entertaining, The Visit will, with hope, signal a new, not-shitty period in a fallen filmmaker’s career.