Following a run of disasters/disappointments that included Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, it would be fair to wonder whether M. Night Shyamalan could ever bounce back with another quality directorial effort. Here’s the good news: his new film, The Visit, is a nice big step in the right direction. A horror thriller told in the faux-doc format (more on that later), the movie is economical, tight, creepy, and actually even pretty damn funny. After a string of ponderous bores, this is the director having fun and not taking either himself or the material so seriously. The result is his best film in more than a decade.
The Visit follows a young brother and sister, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who go to stay with the grandparents they’ve never met before (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) on an extended visit while their mom (Kathryn Hahn) takes her own vacation with a new beau. As soon as they get to Nana and Pop Pop’s isolated farmhouse, however, things quickly take a turn for the strange.
Told not to leave their room after 9:30 pm, the siblings do just that and witness some rather odd sights. But that’s just the start, as Nana and Pop Pop’s behavior becomes even more bizarre, and the two kids wonder if they’ll ever get home.
One thing Shyamalan has always gotten right in his best films, like The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, is character: his people may sometimes be eccentric but his better-written ones are recognizably human. The kids in The Visit feel real in the way they each deal with their family’s dysfunctional past and with each other: wannabe rap star Tyler can be annoying, but in a natural, almost endearing way, not like the obnoxious kids we find in a lot of genre movies and TV shows (cough, cough, The Strain). Kathryn Hahn, in her brief scenes, also brings a lot of emotional resonance to the role of the mom, who’s juggling her own conflicted feelings about her estranged parents with her concern for her kids and her desire to enjoy her new relationship.
The tricky part is bringing the grandparents into all this, but Shyamalan and his two excellent actors make it work, effectively walking the line between comedy and terror. Old people can seem really strange and frightening to kids, and Shyamalan uses this effectively throughout the film as well, making Nana and Pop Pop not completely unsympathetic even when Nana is chasing the kids around a crawlspace like a rabid dog, buttocks flapping in the wind through her torn housecoat. And if that image sounds disturbing, there’s more where that came from. The fun of The Visit is that you never know whether to laugh or gasp at what goes on in that farmhouse, and the director is clearly having a good time keeping you off-balance.
Less interesting is his use of the faux-doc (or found footage, or whatever the hell it’s called these days) format. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, is ostensibly making a documentary about her and Tyler’s reunion with their grandparents, but as is often the case these days, one occasionally gets pulled out of the movie by the format’s constant distractions: why is someone still holding a camera and filming as they’re being thrown down a flight of stairs, for example? Becca’s interest in filmmaking is a reasonable enough way to introduce the conceit, but the film doesn’t need the gimmick. Even though Shyamalan handles it more skillfully than most, it still feels unnecessary.
But it’s not fatal. In purely technical terms, Shyamalan is not about to let the faux-doc esthetic dominate his movie or his imagery, which remains, for the most part, clearly and confidently framed and shot. And on a narrative level, The Visit sustains a level of weird creepiness throughout. Its scares are earned, as are its laughs, and for the first time in a long time, the trademark Shyamalan twist works well and feels organic to the story and the world built around it.
Like many fine horror movies, The Visit plays like a combination of fractured fairy tale (there’s a lot of Hansel & Gretel here, as one can see just from the trailer) and waking nightmare. The cast strikes the right tone, the imagery is unsettling and surreal (and, in a few choice spots, squirm-inducingly gross), and the movie makes you care enough about its central characters that you feel more than just a distant disgust, or worse, a sense of comeuppance at what happens to them – the mark of too many genre outings. The Visit doesn’t repeat what Shyamalan did with his early classics, but it finds him a relaxed, playful space where he is clearly enjoying what he is doing again. Let’s hope he comes back here more often.
The Visit is out in theaters Friday (September 11).