Scaling way back from infamous big-budget disasters The Last Airbender and After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s newest horror-comedy returns a dose of restraint and intimacy to his career. The Visit, despite being fairly derivative in an already monotonous genre, is a reminder that no matter how many debacles Shyamalan has turned out over the last decade, he’s still a filmmaker with a lot of experience and, yes, even talent. Like Michael Bay, Shyalaman has gained infamy for using unashamedly schlocky, repetitive filmmaking techniques. In much the same way that Bay’s modest (in comparison to his other movies) Pain & Gain played with audience’s perception of his movies, in The Visit Shyamalan seems refreshingly self-aware of his own need to come back down to Earth. While he hasn’t lost his proclivity for theatrical plot twists, he seems to have regained his grasp over real, human drama. The fact that the movie manages to be both legitimately creepy and hilarious is just icing.
Caring single mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) sends her two children on a week-long trip at her parent’s house. Thing is, the kids have never met their grandparents before due to Paula cutting ties with them decades prior. Becca, the opportunistic elder child and aspiring filmmaker, takes the trip as a mission. The goal, to create a documentary that will heal the rift between her mom and grandparents. Her sweet younger brother Tyler just wants to have a good time, but that gets harder and harder once both grandparents start exhibiting strange behavior that falls somewhere between common dementia and demonic possession. Things escalate as one would expect, and the entire film is comprised of Becca’s documentary footage of the events.
This all sounds like familiar ground to tread, and the movie treads on it with cleated shoes. Where Shyamalan comes out ahead because, like all good horror movies, there’s a secret trove of emotional depth hidden beneath the central concept. Each main character in the film is dealing with a separation of some kind. The kids have been temporarily separated from their mother, but permanently separated from their father, who has recently run away with another woman. The grandparents have had years to deal with their estrangement from Paula, but neither side seems to have moved past it. Admittedly, these themes aren’t knew. Kids dealing with divorce, for example, has been a subtextual hallmark of countless classics like E.T. and My Neighbor Totoro. But it only takes a little bit of emotional heft to make a horror movie more than just a horror movie, and this series of splits imbues each scene with more than enough poignancy to make you care about both the kids and the grandparents.
There’s also a newfound sense of self-awareness on Shyamalan’s part, through his use of the found footage angle. Becca constantly tries to get Herzog-style video portraits of everyone she meets and lectures her brother on mise-en-scene. “I’m going to turn my personal addiction into a positive cinematic moment,” she declares early on about her contrived but admittedly admirable decision to film as much as possible. Even if these playful meta-moments are just a way for Shyamalan to appeal to the critics who have been savaging his films for years, they’re just what the found footage conceit needs if it’s going to survive much longer.
The most successful found footage films, namely the The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, attempt to emulate an amateurish, gritty look to up the realism and thus the scares, but The Visit turns away from that intentional ugliness. In fact, this is one of the best looking horror Hollywood horror films since The Conjuring. While glaringly obvious that no camera operated by a teenage girl and her brother would turn out footage so-well composed, Shyamalan rightly gambled that the audience would be too caught up in the drama to care. He’s able to make such a bet because, despite what people think of him, Shyamalan knows how to build suspense through an expert combination of camerawork and sound design. His sure hand and practical choices means the tension never breaks, even when he’s winking directly at us.
Further, the film performs the mild miracle of being both a good comedy and a good horror film, not just in rotation but simultaneously. The creepiest moments are often the funniest, mainly because of how the two kids react to the insanity they witness from their grandparents. The film takes comic relief, usually used sparingly in these kinds of movies, and moves it into the foreground. Instead of using humor to break the tension and give the audience a breather, the horror and comedy feed into each other perfectly. Something creepy happens, the kids make a few jokes about it, and then something even creepier happens just when they’ve convinced themselves there’s nothing to fear.
Tyler, played by Ed Oxenbould, is the film’s MVP, quick-talking without being obnoxious, sweet without being naive. He raps about hoes and uses cliche teen slang, yet he isn’t treated as a cynical caricature of ‘today’s youth’. Instead, he’s a gently-heightened, hopeful snapshot of the thirteen-year-olds of 2015. He’s also really, really funny. Becca, played by newcomer Olivia De Jonge, is also more than just ‘The Booksmart One’ that another director might have boiled her character down to. She’s impulsively altruistic (if a little too eager), responsible but not overly-rigid. The two kids have one show-stopping dramatic scene together that demonstrates there remarkable range. Meanwhile, Kathryn Hahn gives one of the best performances of her career, as a vividly flawed but caring parent. The takeaway here is that Shyamalan treats all of his characters with respect, a rare thing to see in genre where humans are often dumb and disposable, to be killed off whenever the narrative starts to sag.
The virtues exhibited by the film are many, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that, up until the inevitable Shyamalan twist, the escalation of events are nothing we haven’t seen a million times before. It’s interesting that the horror comes from the very real source of elderly dementia, but it still manifests itself in the same old ways. Grandma crawls on the floors, grandma scratches the walls, grandma cackles maniacally. Only once the twist is sprung, at which point we desperately don’t want anything bad to happen to these kids, does the movie kick into gear and go places I genuinely didn’t expect. Kudos to Shyamalan for not blowing his wad as soon as he says ‘gotcha’, but for actually carrying the film to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.
Shyamalan’s approach found footage isn’t revolutionary in the same way Unfriended was earlier this year, but it’s still a gleefully playful entry that I don’t think anybody expected from this particular filmmaker. While it may ultimately prove too generic to withstand multiple viewings, it’s the kind of crowd-pleasing film that is perfect for a crowded theater, with laughs and gasps in equal supply.
Score: 3.5 out of 5