Few people have had a more roller coaster Hollywood career than M. Night Shyamalan. His first films earned him a ton of praise from enthusiastic critics and moviegoers. But after that he put out a series of true stinkers that threatened to railroad his once promising career. In fact many people wrote Shyamalan off as dead in the water. Yet while he did put out some really bad movies there was always a glimmer of hope that we would once again get a glimpse of the filmmaker we want him to be.
His latest film “The Visit” is another reminder of how effective Shyamalan can be with small-scale focused horror. It follows his familiar formula of slow buildup, slow buildup, big reveal and it does so competently and effectively. As with many of his stories, “The Visit” toys with some of our secret personal fears – twisting, contorting, and amplifying them before our eyes. This time it’s the fear of the elderly and senility.
As the movie started my very first response was a concerned “Oh no”. Shyamalan chose to make this a found footage picture which is a fad I had hoped was finally dead and gone. But Shyamalan is intelligent in his usage of it. He dodges most of the annoyances that come with the found footage style, most notably narrative holes and the constantly moving cameras. We get fluid storytelling and predominately still cameras which are strategically implemented throughout the film.
The story is fairly simple. A single mother named Paula (played by Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t been the same since her husband left her and their two young children years prior. Her documentarian-in-training daughter Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and freestyle rapping young son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) encourage her to take a cruise with her boyfriend while they go spend the week with their grandparents who they have never met. Here’s the deal, Paula hasn’t spoken to her parents for 15 years following a painful and bitter fight.
This will sound absurd but just go with it. Paula puts her two children on a train to Masonville, Pennsylvania where their grandparents pick them up. Rebecca films the entire thing as a gift to her mom hoping for a possible healing and reconciliation. At the station the kids are greeted by their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) who take them out to their country farmhouse. Everything is documented through Rebecca’s two cameras. Things start well but soon the kids begin noticing weird behavior from their grandparents which gets worse during their week-long stay.
As I mentioned M. Night Shyamalan is known for his slow, methodical buildups and here we get it in the form of creepy moments from the grandparents. Shyamalan takes his time in feeding us these moments and just as the film started to fade for me we get the big twist which I thought worked like a charm. It quickly re-energized the story and made the final act a chilling and eerie ride filled with terrifying unpredictability.
While Shyamalan doesn’t reinvent the wheel with “The Visit” he does show us the able creative flourishes that made him a respected name and overnight success in the horror-thriller genre. It also (hopefully) reinvigorates a career that had been written off by many due to four consecutive disappointments. Maybe it’s the smaller budget or maybe it’s the clearer focus. Whatever the case, I can get behind Shyamalan doing these types of projects and hopefully this is the first step in an exciting comeback.
VERDICT – 4 STARS