So, we all remember M Night Shyamalan, don’t we? He made those couple of films you like, and then a bunch you don’t, and then The Happening, where Zooey Deschanel permanently puts the nail in the coffin of her ever getting out of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-land? You know what I’m talking about.
His first couple of big hits were pretty impressive- The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were interesting, tightly-constructed little stories told with deftness and some strong performances. Signs (for my money, his best movie) and The Village at least succeeded in their simplicity, telling small stories against the background of a larger conspiracy. Fuck, I’ll even throw all my credibility to the wind and admit that I don’t mind Lady in the Water, mainly because it has Paul Giamatti in it and I’m legally obliged (look it up, it’s in there) to like any movies he’s in. But past that, we’ve got The Last Airbender (Let’s cast almost all white kids in this predominantly Asian series!), After Earth (Scientology: The Motion Picture), and the aforementioned The Happening. Like many other people, I’d honesty written him off as another director cursed by his early movies being too good to top (See also: Quentin Tarantino, Danny Boyle). But then I saw The Visit, and that changed things.
I was staggered when I sat down in front of The Visit and found Shyamalan pulling off his biggest twist to date- that he was actually a good film-maker the whole time! I can only assume that The Last Airbender and The Happening were just sleight of hand as he led us up to his career’s own twist ending, which came in the form of the kind of brilliant, old-fashioned found-footage horror.
It’s impossible to escape the fact that Shyamalan is bringing his movies back to their roots with this one, a tense horror that focuses on some strikingly good performances from child actors. Remind you of anything?
But, ignoring the obvious Sixth-Sense comparisons, this was just an impressively low-key horror, which is difficult to pull off without losing the stakes. It follows Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbloud) as they go to visit their estranged grandparents for the first time. Rebecca documents the progress of their trip in the hopes of turning it into a documentary-but the camera doesn’t lie, and there’s definetly something weird going on with their beloved nana and grandpa. There’s not much else to say about the plot without ruining great swathes of the film for you, and it’s the tautness and simpleness of the story that gives Shyamalan so much space to get us really invested in these characters.
I really can’t stress how utterly fantastic the two child actors are, which is a phrase I say about as often as “NO, I would NOT like to see the new Rob Zombie movie, thank you very much” so you know it’s serious. I adore the way the script delves into their characters a bit, balancing their stubborn, schtum tendencies as young teenagers against their ability to genuinely articulate their feelings and fears, especially over the disappearance of their father. The leading quartet is rounded out by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie as the grandparents, who are equally great and exude just the right level of discomforting off-ness for the film’s run. It’s the careful time Shyamalan spends on letting us get to know these characters that makes the horror, which takes it’s sweet time to arrive, even more effective. Seriously, I’ve seen all the Saw movies and The Visit definitely ooked me out quite a bit, which is certainly not why I was showering with the door open for a week so that they couldn’t sneak up on me. Not in the least.
The Visit was impressive almost just because he pulled it off. I was waiting the whole way through for some ludicrous twist (me and the consort were bellowing guesses at the screen all the way through: “THEY’RE ALIENS! THEY’RE DEAD! THE TWIST IS THAT THERE IS NO TWIST!”) to render the whole experience pointless, but it never came. And, for that alone, The Visit deserves a watch- it’s proof that Shyamalan is still capable of making controlled films that don’t spiral into senseless insanity at the half-way point. For anyone mourning the loss of his days as a good writer and director, let me welcome you with open arms to this movie. Just don’t watch it alone.