I love M. Night Shyamalan movies and I have no qualms about admitting that I’m a fan. I was hooked from “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” and I stand by my contention that “The Village” is a fantastic film that was poorly and incorrectly marketed as a horror film when it’s clearly not. And . . . get ready for this one: I adore “Lady in the Water.” Yes, yes, I understand many of you are groaning in pain right now, but I loved the lack of the audience-expected twist, and I loved that it was a straight-up fantasy film set in contemporary times. However, eventually fans are disappointed by their directors, so when “The Happening” . . . um, happened . . . I was hugely let down, and this is where Shyamalan lost me; I never bothered to see “The Last Airbender” or “After Earth” as I joined the majority of the filmgoing world that felt he’d lost his touch. Until now. Wherever the heck he went, whatever soul-searching he went through, whatever he’s been doing — holy Toledo, it worked. The Visit is one of Shyamalan’s best films.
Shyamalan has made his career on dodging pigeonholes — each film is a different type. “The Sixth Sense” was his thriller, “Unbreakable” was a superhero movie before that was even a fully-developed genre, and “Signs” was his sci-fier. “The Village” was a period piece, followed by his fantasy “Lady in the Water.” Today, it’s clear Shyamalan has been paying close attention to the last fifteen years of horror and suspense, because with The Visit he’s given us one of the best found-footage horror films I’ve seen in years.
A “documentary” filmed and edited by fifteen-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge, “The Sisterhood of Night”), The Visit chronicles a week-long visit by Becca and her thirteen-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”). The film opens on an interview with their mother (Kathryn Hahn, “Tomorrowland”), who explains that she fell in love with their now-absent father when she was nineteen. She references a very bad afternoon that was the catalyst for her fifteen year separation from her parents, and tells Becca that their grandparents were actually the ones to finally reach out after so long.
In the hopes of reconciliation, Mom agrees to allow Becca and Tyler visit their grandparents in the country for a week while she takes a short vacation with her new boyfriend. Excited by the opportunity, budding filmmaker Becca brings her cameras and enlists Tyler as her B-camera operator.
Typical found-footage exposition carries us to Masonville, PA by train, and the story picks up quickly once the teens arrive at the farm. Becca and Tyler are welcomed by sweet homemaker Nana (Deanna Dunagan, “Just Like a Woman”) and hardworking, old-school Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, “Inherent Vice”) who share their lives with them during the day, and tuck them in for the night at 9:30pm. Over the next few days, Becca and Tyler witness incredibly strange behavior from their Nana and Pop Pop — Nana shuffles through the house at night, and Pop Pop is extremely secretive about a shed on the property — but each explains away the behavior with excuses of elderly sundowning and embarrassment about getting older. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, and Becca and Tyler find themselves encountering stranger and more unsettling behavior as the week goes on.
With The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan has written and directed an incredibly well-crafted found-footage film. The juxtaposition of tension and comic relief is staggeringly masterful, especially since found-footage has been so overdone (poorly), and he wields the unfamiliar setting of the farmhouse powerfully against both Becca and Tyler and the audience. The four main characters are stellar personalities, and each one stands out for a different reason: Becca is the young filmmaker who takes her work very seriously, carefully crafting frames and cinematic scenes for her documentary; Pop Pop takes extreme pride in being a strong farmworker, but struggles greatly with his increasing age; Nana is kind and fun-loving, baking cookies and playing hide and seek with her grandchildren, but fights to retain control of her faculties in the evening. Finally, there’s Tyler, who absolutely steals the show. At first, he’s just a caricature — a thirteen-year-old kid who thinks he’s the next successful rap artist — but as the film continues, he very quickly becomes the best character onscreen. Oxenbould breaks out from the screen with Tyler’s quick wit, hilarious self-retakes, and decision to give up cursing, substituting the names of female pop artists for four-letter words. He is the crux of the essential comic relief; with each scene of extreme tension and suspense, Shyamalan pairs a scene with Tyler acting like the little brother you wouldn’t mind tagging along. Without him, the movie would lose half its effect.
There are so many fantastic things about this movie that it’s impossible to fully explain the experience without spoiling plotpoints. This is absolutely a film you must see in the theater, and with a crowd of people if you can. Seeing The Visit is like seeing “The Blair Witch Project” or “Paranormal Activity” in the theater again; the best part of seeing an incredible horror film is enduring the tension and enjoying the laughs that follow. Everyone is still and silent until the tension breaks, and everyone relaxes together, laughing at how high out of their seats they jumped. As a seasoned horror fan, I was thrilled by how effectively Shyamalan directed these moments again and again and again. There are bona fide jumps, there are incredibly creepy moments throughout, and most impressive is how simple, yet potent, each scare really is.
M. Night Shyamalan has taken a genre that has gotten old very, very quickly, and has given us a film that not only revitalizes the enjoyment of seeing a horror movie in the theater; it has definitely revitalized his career. No matter when or why you gave up on his movies, you must give this one a watch. The Visit is “The Sixth Sense” good and this ex-fan is absolutely back on board, excited to see what comes next.