M. Night Shyamalan’s career has reached a point now where he’d just have to release a film that was moderately acceptable for it to be hailed as some sort of comeback. After the triple-whammy awfulness of The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, he has nowhere to go but up. In his situation, going and making a low-budget horror film for Blumhouse productions sounds like just the right idea for an attempt at career rehabilitation too, and that’s exactly what he’s done here (this film’s budget is about 3% that of After Earth’s).
So is The Visit the return to Shyamalan’s heyday of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, a time when he was hailed as a major new talent? Well no, not exactly. It’s not as good as those movies by a long shot, but it is also a definite improvement on his last decade or so of work.
The plot concerns an estranged family situation. Mother of two Paula (Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t seen her parents for 15 years, but they recently contacted her out of a desire to meet their grandchildren. The kids; 15 year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and 12 year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) agree to go and stay with their grandparents for a week while their mother goes off on a cruise. Rebecca’s main interest is filmmaking, and she wishes to make a documentary about the experience, bringing along a few cameras and her laptop for editing. Tyler meanwhile, is an aspiring rapper. This is the film’s first big misstep, we get several scenes of Tyler demonstrating his rapping ‘skills’ all of which are toe-curlingly awful. These were made even worse by the thought in the back of my mind as I was watching that Shyamalan himself must have actually sat down and written these at some point. Throughout the film, Tyler teeters on the edge of being a believable child character and an annoying one, but Shyamalan does deserve some credit for making the sibling rivalry/friendship dynamic between him and his sister convincing.
As the previous passage might suggest, this is also Shyamalan’s first attempt at ‘found footage’ horror. I tend to find this an automatic turn-off but he handles it reasonably efficiently. The fact that Rebecca’s actively trying to make a documentary, rather than just being someone who randomly films everything allows Shyamalan to employ better framed shots that a lot of found footage movies, and he even gets in a few filmmaking jokes in. He manages to use the technique to improve a few of the scares, a scene involving the kids playing hide-and-seek each armed with cameras demonstrates well how this can be used to get a perspective that a traditionally filmed horror movie might not.
He doesn’t manage to avoid some of the inherent problems in found footage movies though, one scene can only exist of Rebecca’s made the conscious decision to film herself as she sleeps, there are several times when the cameras are dropped with overly convenient views, and there are a few moments towards the end when no sane person would continue to worry about filming what was happening to them.
You know once they arrive at the house that there’s going to be something creepy about this old couple (both well played by Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan). Shyamalan initially only offers us brief teases, with glimpses of their erratic behaviour both during the day, and at night (more so in Nana’s case). At first, the other partner always seems to have a fairly reasonably-sounding explanation for these events, most of which can be boiled down to the fact that their problems are not uncommon for elderly people.
The Visit gets a handful of effectively scary moments in but also takes a little too long to give you more of an idea as to what’s actually going on. There’s not a huge twist like the ones Shyamalan was originally famous for including, but when the initial reveal comes he handles it very well by underplaying it. I won’t spoil it here but this knowledge unfortunately then leads to one character making an extremely stupid decision of the kind people only make in horror movies.
Shyamalan doesn’t overly rely on jump scares in The Visit, and often opts for simply building tense scenes even if they don’t exactly lead to anything in particular, he does give in to one annoying cop-out scare though. After a film that’s mostly build-up he does deliver a more traditionally fright-filled finale that pays-off what’s come before.
He doesn’t quite know when to end his film though. There’s a moment that would be a perfectly suitable place to stop, but instead he slaps on two codas, the first is an overly sentimental one, and the second tries to be purely comedic (and fails spectacularly). All these characters would likely have serious issues to get over after the events of the film and showing them in this light just emphasises that. It’s a shame to leave the film on such a bum-note, as while The Visit isn’t a triumphant return for Shyamalan, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.