By Matthew McKibben | September 11, 2015
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
I’ve always been fascinated with career arcs of artists, especially when the artist in question is someone with a seemingly prodigious talent. I love seeing the mountains and valleys of their career and observing how each mountain and valley shapes the choices they make in the future. The careers of auteur directors usually go in one of two directions. Writer-directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and Paul Thomas Anderson have total creative control of their work and continually find a way to reinvent themselves while maintaining a cinematic output that is both critically and commercially successful. Then you have directors like Robert Rodriguez, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee (to name but a few of many), who burst onto the scene like a rocket off the pad, but then have difficulty staying in orbit.
It’s safe to say that M. Night Shyamalan belongs in that latter, but he almost deserves his own category; he’s someone people root against these days. He burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, earned “the next Spielberg” (a title given to many) mantle with Unbreakable, and maintained that status (though showed signs of wear and tear) with Signs. But then things got bumpy really fast and everything that followed scraped the bottom of the barrel both critically and commercially. The Village was just okay, but then things bottomed out completely with Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. It seemed that the greatest twist M. Night ever concocted was making us wonder which M. Night was the real M. Night; the one who produced timeless works of contemporary horror like The Sixth Sense and Signs or the M. Night who produced monotone bore-fests like After Earth and Lady in the Water.
I’m not sure where his career goes from here, but (thankfully) The Visit belongs in that former category. The Visit is a solid campfire horror story, told well enough that I remembered why we all loved Shyamalan in the first place. In the career context of an artist, this is an artist refusing to go quietly into the “whatever happened to” discussion. After the bloat of After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan has stripped down to the bare basics and produced a pretty solid, occasionally great, piece of modern psychological horror.
I was thinking the other night that my favorite horror movies are, more often than not, movies where everything is small, limited, stripped down, and self-contained. I enjoy modern movies, but if they have one overarching fault, they’re often too complicated and sprawling for their own good. Sometimes, you just need three guys on a boat battling a shark… or a spaceship filled with commercial space miners battling an alien. The Visit is not Jaws or Alien, but it does share that stripped down DNA. At its core, The Visit is about what would happen if the kindly old grandparents you spent the week with had psychological monsters (or perhaps more) they were working out.
Don’t get me wrong, the best “stripped down, bare essentials” movies always have extra layers to them. In this, you have quite a bit of family trauma in play, as both the kids in question are dealing with the issues associated with them being abandoned by their father, but also the falling out that took place between their mom and their grandparents, which prevented the mom from coming on this trip in the first place. We’re told a great horror took place on the day of their big falling out, and that unspoken horror both shades the entirety of the movie and directs you to the eventual twist that Shyamalan is oh so fond of. On the twist, I sniffed it out and saw where they were going fairly early on, but it was still unsettling and shocking when the movie finally gets there. I’ll say no more about that.
Perhaps the biggest twist of all is how funny this movie is. When I started thinking about what I would write in this review, I wondered if this was more of a comedy or more of a horror movie. It’s certainly the latter, but the movie is genuinely laugh out loud funny in numerous spots. Most of those laughs come from Ed Oxenbould (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), who plays Tyler. I’ve only seen Oxenbould in a couple of things, but based on his performance in this, I’d say he’s a kid actor worth paying attention to.
Tyler’s sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge) fancies herself a documentary filmmaker and it’s through her filming the events of the movie that The Visit is given its found-footage aesthetic. While it was kind of fun at first, the “found footage” thing has about run its course at this point. For every great “what was that” moment that it captures, it requires more leaps in logic than modern audiences are probably going to give it. I wish Shyamalan had instead chosen to shoot this conventionally, as the “found footage” concept really becomes silly (as it always does in horror movies) as the movie reaches its climax. At a certain point, I don’t care how committed to the project a documentary filmmaker is; you’re going to put down the camera and fucking run away from the terror behind you. Shyamalan found some creative reasons to sustain the format, but still… when it’s time to run, you run. But on top of that, Shyamalan is a master at building suspense in seemingly mundane situations and I felt like the found footage aesthetic shackled him to some degree.
If the movie has another glaring flaw, it’s that things went too weird too quickly with Deanna Dunagan’s Nana and Peter McRobbie’s Pop Pop. The movie never firmly establishes them as kindly old grandparents, so when the craziness starts to happen, it’s not entirely all that shocking. They seemed relatively unpleasant from the get-go. After night after night of disturbing noises, imagery, and terror, it’s pretty hard to believe that the kids would not be asking to leave sooner.
Shyamalan is a master of low-fi horror and on that level, this movie is one of his best yet. The best, most scary moment from The Sixth Sense and Signs involved relatively easy shots, and this movie follows that pattern. There are some easy-as-pie jump scares that all modern horror directors do, but Shyamalan knows that sometimes the scariest noise you can hear is something unexplainable happening on the other side of a closed door.
Shyamalan is officially back on the map, but I’m curious to see where he goes from here. Is this a slight deviation from the downward trajectory his career was on, or is this the start of a new era of solid film making for him? As a fan of well crafted horror, I hope it’s the latter. I’m not saying he’s a great artist, but he is a true one.