It’s been quite a while since cinephiles have clamored for a new M. Night Shyamalan film; the man who brought us Six Sense and Unbreakable has produced a string of unwatchable and at times atrocious films, resulting in ridicule at the expense of what remained of his once esteemed reputation. Seeing his name emblazoned on the marquee of a new film makes one circumspect about sitting through another possible cinematic turd, especially without a nagging reminder that his trademark plot twist is coming and can either make or break a film.
I’m happy to report this isn’t the case with The Visit, an enjoyable foray into mystery, horror, and even comedy nestled within the often predictable found-footage genre. Shyamalan distinguishes his latest by employing ordinary looking actors that aren’t just one-dimensional nobodies but two characters we actually care about. This makes for a great visual choice.
The plot is relatively simple: we meet young Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a rapper extraordinaire, and his older sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a self-proclaimed film director set on capturing their weeklong visit to their grandparents home – whom they’ve never actually met. One might argue that it’s Becca who is responsible for Shyamalan’s success here, as she’s technically the ‘director’ of her own little documentary, and hence the whole film (wouldn’t that be something!). Talk about meta.
Their grandparents Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie) have a history worth mentioning; they’re estranged from their own daughter and the sibling’s mother (Kathryn Hahn), a real candidate for Worst Mother of the Year for allowing her kids to travel solo as she goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend.
But there’s something amiss in this lonely Pennsylvania home: both grandparents start acting a bit off, especially after 9:30 as their clocks go cuckoo and strange things begin to unfurl. The old timers blame their “idiosyncrasies” on old age, of course, but there’s more going on beneath the surface. The siblings try to get to the bottom of things, which is difficult as they’re not allowed in the basement, and soon even more questions being to pop up. Just what is grandpa hiding in the shed? And why does grandma walk around at night?
The idea of two kids battling a possible threat at their grandparents’ home while dealing with the abandonment of their father sounds like it should be right up M. Night Shyamalan’s alley. Unlike most of his recent films he doesn’t disappoint with this low-key horror offering, offering plenty to be afraid of and plenty of laugh at, capturing a certain sympathy usually lacking in found-footage films.
In this way The Visit is exactly what Shyamalan needed: a simple project with a small cast, a single setting, and a good script (which he wrote as well). There’s no pressure to impress and it shows; the film feels relaxed and comfortable. Also, the expected twist happens so casually that it actually works, never feeling arbitrary or forced. It wasn’t outlandish or implausible, but modest and in good taste, becoming a logical segue into the third act.
The Visit is refreshing and a quirky mild-horror gem from a director most thought had lost his way. There’s also a surprising amount of comedy, a component greatly lacking in Shyamalan’s past films and a welcome change from most of his recent output. His characters appear to shoulder the weight of the whole world in their brooding and depressing world, one that makes for great entertainment. Its playfulness is something to enjoy in what becomes a surprising comeback for a forlorn director who lost himself long ago. One hopes he can dish out a few more hits like this one in the following years.