It’s been roughly a decade since M. Night Shyamalan’s name didn’t elicit giggles in an audience. It’s a fall from grace that few Directors ever encounter because of how carefully managed their careers have become. It’s even more disconcerting when you consider the start Shyamalan had and the cultural touchstone his films became. From The Sixth Sense to Unbreakable to (most of) Signs – films that bared his moniker were an event on the level of Tarantino. He brought about comparisons to Spielberg and early Lucas films with his ability to combine real prose with otherworldly tension and thoughtfulness.
Then The Village happened. Then Lady in the Water (slight vomit in mouth.) Then the interminable The Happening. After this unprecedented run of filth, Shyamalan became a Director for hire – taking studio jobs where he could. No longer did his name bring excitement and anticipation – mostly an elbow from your friend during a preview and a post-movie laugh that he was still working. After his last two projects (the bat shit terrible The Last Airbender and After Earth) it was a true wonder if he would ever find a job in Hollywood again.
But, after a large payday from his Will Smith vehicle After Earth Shyamalan has self-funded his new project – The Visit. In what to some may see as a desperate attempt to revive a fledgling career he is back as writer/director of his own vision. For all of his faults, vision is one thing Shyamalan has never lacked. And – as a fan of his earlier films – I admire and have hoped with each passing failure he could recapture that unique perspective.
While not the most original direction that Shyamalan has ever gone in, The Visit is his most visceral, horrifying experience in years. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) left home in a huff when she was 19 and cut off contact. She’s raising her kids alone but is dating a new guy. One afternoon her parents reach out with a simple request, they want to meet their grandkids. Becca and Tyler are excited at the opportunity. It’s a hole in their life as their mother has never share what happened and, naturally, doesn’t want them to go. And what do you do when your mom doesn’t want you to do something? You get on a train, travel up state and spend a week with your estranged grandma and grandpa. What does your mother do with that free time? She books a cruise with her new boyfriend of course.
As soon as Becca and Tyler arrive, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are there to greet them with open arms. Their big, snow covered farm house is welcoming with fresh meals cooked by Nana each day. Pop Pop tends to the livestock and the four play games at night. But, as Pop Pop says on night one, “We’re old people, we go to bed at 9:30.” Becca and Tyler figure, what the heck it’s only a week, we can survive early bed times and no Wi-Fi. That’s when things get…weird.
The kids hear noises outside their room at night. First they think nothing of it but find Nana has a severe form of night terrors and is doing some bizarre things in her sleep. Meanwhile during the day, Pop Pop has an strong paranoia toward strangers while Nana has an odd way of playing hide and seek.
The fun and terror of The Visit comes in many forms but the best way is to not know too much going in. The surprises in the second and third act are plentiful and immensely satisfying. The collective joy my audience received of being scared out of their chair was a hoot. Shyamalan’s mostly great script cuts this tension with some great jokes and sight gags. Having not been around their grandparents, both kids chalk much of the bizarre behavior up to old people being…old. It leads to some hysterical commentary as they attempt to understand their new family members.
Shyamalan also employs the “found footage” motif to great effect. Becca is making a documentary about meeting her grandparents for the first time and the whole film takes place behind her and her brother’s camera. It’s a tired effect that, I thought, had been played out but Shyamalan employs it with a deftness that felt fresh and completely self-aware. Becca consistently comments on the nature of filmmaking, something we’ve all done while talking about Shyamalan’s work. In a different circumstance this could come off as pretentious but here it feels like a well-placed middle finger to his critics.
With a fantastic group of actors and a smart script layered on, Shyamalan found something with The Visit. While he explores familiar territory about single parent households and familial dysfunction, in this horrific setting it never feels exploitive. In many ways he feels free as he embraces things that go bump in the night. I have no idea if M. Night is back, but I hope he is because even in failure he’s always been interesting. And while The Visit may be too weird, gross or scary to some I thought it balanced those elements to great effect. There is something so fun about being spooked in a theater with a willing audience. After 10+ years of misses M. Night may never “see dead people” again but he may, even still, be able to revive his dead career.