M. Night Shyamalan made another good movie, and I’m as surprised as you are. It’s called The Visit, and it’s a legitimately entertaining and engaging picture that veers unexpectedly yet confidently from horror to black comedy to genuine pathos — in other words, showing a command of form and tone that has eluded the filmmaker for well over a decade. The result is an object lesson in career rehabilitation; Shyamalan shows an awareness of his missteps, and created a film that allowed him, in many ways, to get back to basics.
It comes not a moment too soon. After the breakthrough smash of The Sixth Sense and respectable critical and commercial reception to its follow-up, Unbreakable, the seams of Shyamlan’s style began to show in 2002’s Signs, which has some sharp moments and an intriguing setup, but comes apart badly in the gimmicky climax. Then came the spiral, each film — The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth — worse than the last, depending with an increasingly predictable reliability on laughable twist endings, mired in clunky dialogue, and, in the case of Lady, embarrassingly defensive.
Yet Shyamalan kept getting work, because (with the exception of Lady) his films remained big moneymakers (even After Earth, widely dismissed as a giant flop, more than recouped its costs overseas). Still, the stinging notices from critics (and even audiences) had to hurt; after all, this was the guy Newsweek dubbed “The Next Spielberg,” and 11 years later, Sony all but hid his participation in After Earth. So the choice became clear: he could either toil away as an anonymous for-hire bad movie director of the Adam Shankman/Raja Gosnell ilk, or he could figure out a way to get his mojo back.
Enter Jason Blum. The highly prolific Blumhouse Productions CEO has built an empire producing low-budget movies (usually genre pics) that turn big profits; he’s also something of an old-school studio head, inasmuch as his productions have a house style and frequently recurring themes. The Visit is recognizable as Blumhouse product in several ways: it’s shot in found-footage style, it’s confined mostly to a single location, and its primary scare-driver is dread of the nighttime. And its budget is a scant $5 million — bluntly put, 1/26th of After Earth’s.
The restrictions are, it turns out, to Shyamalan’s benefit — he simplifies the storytelling, reining in the convoluted narratives of an Airbender or a Lady. The focus is on a pair of teenagers, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who are sent to spend a week with their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. Their mother (the great Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t spoken to them in 15 years, and doesn’t particularly want to now, but the kids insist on the trip — mostly to let her go on a cruise with her beau.
When they arrive, they’re not sure what the fuss is about. “You guys are good kids,” their Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) tells them. “This is gonna be a great week!” But soon, weird things start happening — especially at night. They find Nana (Deanna Dunagan) wandering the house, vomiting. Another night, investigating weird noises in the hall, they discover her naked, clawing at the walls. Pop-Pop explains that she has a particular form of dementia that flares up at night (it’s called “sundowning”), so they probably shouldn’t come out of their rooms after bedtime. But he’s got some variation of it himself, confusing and forgetting things.
Becca looks all this up, and it checks out; “People are scared of old people for nothing,” she insists, taking on the familiar horror movie role of the skeptic to Tyler’s worrywart. But that line also underlines a key theme of the movie, one that’s essential to its success: by working on such a small scale, Shyamalan removes himself from the fantastical worlds and science-fiction tilts that he fumbled so badly in earlier works, and is dealing in more elemental concerns. The dread of The Visit’s first hour or so boils down to two points, infinitely identifiable to horror’s usual teen target market: 1. Old people are weird; 2. Old people are gross.
Some of this is played for scares; some is played (concurrently, even) for laughs. Yes, thankfully, somewhere along the line, the dour Shyamalan developed a sense of humor, and while not all of the jokes work (let’s be honest: very few of the jokes involving Tyler work), they create a welcome tension, a pattern of scary set pieces at night offset by deflating humor in the morning. He knows there’s an inherent silliness to the enterprise (early comparisons to the film-within-Arrested-Development Gangie aren’t entirely off-base), and his attitude has changed since The Happening: now, Shyamalan isn’t afraid of that silliness. (He even seems to make a joke at his own expense, when crazy Nana babbles a nonsense story about “creatures at the bottom of the pond” that sounds more than a little bit like Lady in the Water.)
Even more impressively, he juggles those horror and dark comedy elements with family drama beats which come to a head in a couple of teary-eyed interview scenes that, surprisingly enough, were met with dead-quiet involvement by my otherwise rowdy preview audience. They were with the movie, and this was the thing Shyamalan had and lost: the ability to take his audience anywhere. I’m glad he got it back. The Visit is goofy, audacious, scary, and fun. Now, let’s just pray it doesn’t provoke a big-budget follow-up.