By Nick Anstett
For the last decade, there have been few directors that have been as associated with the concept of cinematic schock as M. Night Shyamalan has. Whether it was through his sentimental plotting, his barely contained narcissism, or his now universally derided proclivity for third act game changing twists, Shyamalan, the once proud director of “The Sixth Sense,” became a laughing stock. With an abysmal recent track record that includes such unfortunate diversions as “The Last Airbender,” “The Happening,” and “After Earth,” it’s hard not to blame this reaction. However, “The Visit” sees Shyamalan returning to his horror tinged roots for a smaller and hopefully more successful thriller.
Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) never knew their grandparents. After a falling out regarding their mother’s relationship with their future deadbeat father, all ties were cut. Neither generation has spoken to the other in close to 20 years, but when a new relationship seems to be on the horizon for their mother, Rebecca and Tyler jump at what they see as an opportunity for growth and reconciliation. While their mother goes on an impromptu tropical cruise with her new flame, the two children spend the week with their estranged grandparents. Soon after meeting Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) not everything seems right. Both are prone to sporadic and paranoid behavior that rotates between harmless, aging cluelessness, and perhaps something more sinister.
Shyamalan, in his most successful attempts at directing and screenwriting, has found power in the intersection between the mundane and human and the potentially supernatural and terrifying. It’s what makes “The Sixth Sense” the pop cultural phenomenon that it still is today and what makes for the stronger aspects of his other works such as “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” “The Visit” sees Shyamalan return to his best trick. The smart sense of tension and the puzzle piece crafting elements that lend themselves towards the director’s trademark twists and turns are still there, but what makes “The Visit” tick is its clear sense of what wheelhouse it operates in.
By placing its four leads at such widely disparate points in their lives it picks at fears of aging as well as the general sense of paranoia and confusion that comes with adolescence. In this manner, it plays with the perception of Nana and Pop Pop’s potential illness or malicious underpinnings with a mixed sense of pity, humor, and unease before plunging head first into chaos. “The Visit’s” ability to joke is perhaps its biggest surprise. Shyamalan smartly realizes that as uneasy and strange as the concept he has chosen is, it is also one that is inherently bizarre and even comedic. DeJonhe and Oxenbould have a strong sense of comedic timing and their director doesn’t shy away from gross and shocking sight gags.
The true stars of the film prove to be Dunagan and McRobbie. Together, the two create a caricature of the stereotypical rural grandparents. They rotate sometimes within the span of seconds between warm, pitiful, comedic, and terrifying. Dunagan, in particular, who is prone to late night acts of violence and inhuman behavior is a scene stealer.
Shyamalan utilizes the film’s found footage conceit to mostly effective ends. As usually befalls this subgenre of horror, “The Visit,” at times, forgoes believability for narrative convenience but avoids this through making the camera’s themselves act as artifacts for Rebecca’s obsession with creating a documentary of her family’s history. It also plays with character point of view allowing for creative shocks.
As “The Visit” approaches its conclusion, the many concepts it juggles begin to fall loose. The humor feels less fitting, the melodrama comes across as insensitive, and the horror loses its subtlety. It never truly offends nor betrays the good trust it is built upon and is often quite unnerving and even scary, but what makes “The Visit” unique evaporates as the third act draws to a close. It’s ultimately as if Shyamalan opted for tried and true entertainment rather than jumping into uncharted ground, but based on the track record of these decisions in the past, perhaps this was for the best.
“The Visit,” while in and of itself is nothing entirely remarkable, makes for an entertaining and unnerving horror film, but it is perhaps most notable for its marked return to competency for its derided director. Let’s hope this is a sign of good things to come.