Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould & Kathryn Hahn
Every good director makes bad movies. David Lynch made Dune, Francis Ford Coppola made Jack. Even Steven Spielberg made 1941. But M Night Shyamalan has made many bad movies. Although it’s hard to believe now, almost 20 years ago he was considered to be a leading light of cinema, an Oscar-nominated genre director who could do no wrong. Until The Village, The Happening, and- shudder – The Last Airbender. Eventually, he was considered to be such a joke that his new movie, The Visit, doesn’t even put his name on the trailers. This is a shame, because it’s a remarkable return to form for the former wunderkind.
The Visit starts off with a mother being contacted out of the blue by her estranged parents, who would like to see their grandchildren. Her husband left a few years before and she’s finally got a new boyfriend, so the kids – older Becca and younger Tyler - decide to go to give their mother some space. Tyler is frustrated he can’t text his ladies, and works on his rap skills – despite being a weedy little kid with a germ phobia. Becca decides to create a documentary about her grandparents with a view to helping them reconcile with her mother.
On arrival in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Pennsylvania- it’s M Night Shyamalan, of course it’s Pennsylvania – the kids quickly work out there’s something wrong with their grandparents. Nana in particular suffers from something called sun-downing, a kind of time-sensitive dementia which worsens at night. As a result, there’s only one rule – don’t leave your room after 9.30 PM. No prizes for guessing what the kids do next.
Shyamalan hits a few interesting ideas in the film, beginning with subverting usual expectations for found footage movies by making the film a mockumentary of sorts instead. This allows a little more insight into the characters – Becca is as believably pretentious as any 15-year-old should be – and also means the film actually has some solid imagery in it: there are some beautiful moments in snowy woods, shadowy barns, and the old Shyamalan mainstay, mirrors being used to reflect different spaces within a scene. This is something you couldn’t get away with in a found footage movie, where a trope of the genre is that everything is filmed to look as terrible as possible.
The film is also disarmingly comedic. Shyamalan goes out of his way to include lots of jokes as a way of deflating the tension, only to ratchet it up later on. This is something that’s been sorely missing in mainstream horror recently, with the relentlessly grimdark tone of James Wan’s movies like The Conjuring opting instead for never-ending rising dread. Shyamalan understands the audience needs a break, and provides it in abundance, but never without justification; in several places, he quietly slips in little story hints into otherwise funny moments, dropping exposition without being obvious about it.
When the film does push into horror territory, it does so with great gusto, pushing horrifying sights and terrifying tension sequences at the viewer in quick succession. In my screening, the audience gasped audibly, breathed sighs of relief when the scenes changed, and cringed at the more gross moments. It’s nice to see Shyamalan getting back in touch with the needs and expectations of an audience after the self-indulgence displayed in Lady in the Water and After Earth; during his worst period, he released a film called Devil with little fanfare, which was a schlocky horror with a fun Twilight Zone vibe to it. This movie reminded me of that – both show Shyamalan at home with the true work of a horror director, manipulating the audience into biting their nails and squirming in their seats.
Underneath the schlocky aspect of the film, Shyamalan never loses sight of the characters involved, ascribing believable motivations to Becca and Tyler but also to Nana and Pop-pop. Even the kids’ mum gets a little plot time, showing up occasionally through Skype on a cruise ship with her boyfriend, oblivious to the danger the children are in. The time taken to establish an emotive background for the kids is relatively substantial – certainly more so than the ’20 minutes with jerks’ standard in this genre – and it pays off in making the viewer all the more attached to the fortunes of Becca and Tyler once things start going down the pan.
So The Visit has redeemed M Night Shyamalan - for now- and it’s a crowdpleaser of a horror, something that’ll make an excellent addition to the Halloween roster this year. But why wait until then? It’s out now, and best seen with an audience, so clear out your schedule and go to see The Visit.