The most inconsistent director of our generation has made a resurgence, crafting a found-footage thriller that changes the scope of the genre and also changes the trajectory of his flailing career.
The director, of course, is M. Night Shyamalan, known for his first three features, Signs, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable. Following mixed critical reception to his most ambitious project, The Village, M. Night followed with several dead on arrival, awful films. Do The Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, After Earth, or The Happening sound familiar? Anyone who has seen them knows how much of a disaster they are, but let’s put it into context:
Average Tomato Score of Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, The Village: 68% (even with The Village’s underrated 43% factoring in)
Average Tomato Score of Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, The Happening, and After Earth: 15%
The story behind The Visit is a rather touching one. After Shyamalan realized his failings in four straight big-budget films, he had trouble finding a suitor for a new film. He decided to make a horror film, a playful found-footage movie about everyone’s safest experience: visiting your grandparents. He funded the project entirely himself, and had to then go through the process of finding a distribution company to help. Eventually horror maestro Jason Blum took the film, and it’s good he did, because The Visit is one of the most unique and thrilling experiences in the theater all year.
The first commendable part about The Visit is that it features a director who is hungry for success. The film is made with more care and interest in the characters than anything Shyamalan has released in years. Away from big-budget studio pressures, he can be quirky, and crafts a unique tone on a fairly chilling concept. Rather than create this as your normal, shaky camera horror film, he manages to walk the tightrope of absurdist art, playfully funny and also relentlessly scary. Few have succeeded in this, Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell come to mind, maybe The Cabin in the Woods, but The Visit has that, the charm of a comedy but also really scary moments that make it different from any film I’ve ever seen.
The found-footage isn’t as much of a gimmick, here. Film prodigy Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and her aspiring rapper brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) after a fallout with their mother (Kathryn Hahn) ended their relationship. Now, nearly twenty years later, the grandparents have reached out to care for the kids for a week to get to know them. Naturally, child-like aspirations and all, Rebecca brings her camera to film and present the entire experience as professionally as possible, but things take a turn for the worse when there’s just something not quite right about the grandparents.
The surprising thing, other than Shyamalan has finally made a good movie again, is that the found-footage idea actually makes the film a lot better. It’s done in a manner that doesn’t let outside actions penetrate the ideas, as in, there’s no added music for jump scares, or scenes that suddenly cut to a stationary camera. The lens of the film is entirely through the two children’s eyes and the way that they interact with the grandparents, which is caught on film in the specific way that they want, which gives some of the horror aspect a very unique style because you’re seeing it in the way that the kids see it.
The comedy here, also, if completely intentional is watched correctly. A few criticisms have been that it’s ‘unintentionally funny’ or ‘so bad that it inspires laughs,’ this cannot be more false. The film is made entirely to be a horror film that deflates tension after a scare and then makes you laugh in your vulnerability. It’s a great tactic, where something happens and everyone in the crowd sighs in relief, what follows is a very funny visual or one-liner that we laugh at as part of the relief. This makes the experience a lot more enjoyable. Some parts are VERY scary, and some parts are also pretty decently funny. The final plus to give The Visit is that it has a few very touching moments and well-acted scenes that require it. Whether it be little ticks or something to do with the family dynamic, so much of the backstory is actually important, and it delivers.