Bring on the Shyamalanaissance! Seriously, I’ve been pulling for my boy M. Night since before he let fly the string of stinkers that turned the whole wide web against him, and The Visit is (hopefully) his first shaky step toward a complete career recovery. Arriving unfashionably late to the found-footage party, Shy Guy’s latest might easily be written off as a “me too” effort; a final, sad admission that the besmirched auteur—infamously hailed as a successor to Hitchcock—has at last resigned to life as a studio shill (the presence of producer Jason Blum here doesn’t exactly inspire confidence). It would be easy to write all that… if his new movie weren’t so much damn fun.
Even as a Shyamalan apologist, I write that last bit with something of an asterisk. Here’s the thing—I don’t think The Visit is an especially great film by any objective academic standard. It isn’t as brilliant as The Babadook or as creative as It Follows. It’s not even on par with Night in his prime. But those are probably the wrong comparison points. His scrappy comeback feels closer in spirit to a Sam Raimi gagfest than any of the above. There will be blood. There will be puke. There will be shit.
The basic thrust of the narrative revolves around teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), who board a train bound for rural Pennsylvania for a weeklong stay at grandma’s house. Upon arrival however, Nana and Pop Pop display some bizarre eccentricities that may not be entirely harmless. It’s a back-to-basics thesis for Shyamalan, who’s coming off two 100+ million dollar blockbuster bombs. The simple story is bolstered by naturalistic performances by DeJonge and Oxenbould, who come across authentic almost to a fault—prepare to cringe with empathetic embarrassment as a 13-year-old white kid freestyle raps about pineapple upside-down cake. Yeah, boi.
That unbridled honesty is effectively juxtaposed against the comic absurdity of the film’s sick scares. Shyamalan has in the past employed humor to relieve tension, but here the line between horror and comedy is intentionally blurred; The Visit boasts as many uproarious laugh-out-loud moments as it does effective jump scares, and there’s a degree of overlap if you were to draw a Venn diagram. It’s these moments when the movie feels like it’s firing on all cylinders as a goofy, gross-out good time. So much so that its dodgy attempts at character development actually undercut the prevalent anarchic tone. The drama plays out competently enough, and it’s hard to fault Shyamalan for his doe-eyed earnestness, but I do feel the film could have benefited from a little less self-seriousness. The on-camera interviews feel especially hokey, providing a vehicle for schmaltz that sticks in the craw.
Still, Shyamalan seems limber working within the confines of the found-footage format, even poking fun at himself via DeJonge’s character, who documents the goings-on with precocious directorial indecision. Naturally, Night also exploits the medium’s requisite gimmicks, in addition to a few rare moments of inspired visual brilliance. One such sequence caps the film’s climax, elevating the DIY aesthetic into something unexpectedly beautiful. If only he had the balls to go out on that moment!
Depending on who you ask, M. Night Shyamalan has made either a couple bad movies, or a couple good ones. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, The Visit should be viewed with an open mind. Though far from perfect, it smartly toys with expectations both within the genre and within Night’s own catalog. At the very least, it’s proof the besmirched auteur still retains some of his past greatness, and at best provides a glimmer of hope that he may yet have his best years ahead of him. As for today, there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had at grandma’s. You first.