To say that The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan’s return to form isn’t saying much, because 1) few filmmakers have fallen further than Shyamalan in public opinion, and 2) it’s only a so-so movie. But it is certainly better than anything Shyamalan has made in years, and it shows some signs of the things that made him such a promising writer and director in the first place. It’s a lean, spare story, free of the kind of self-important bullsh*t that took some shine off Signs and The Village, and absolutely ruined everything else after that. (The Lady in the Water remains one of the most ludicrously self-important movies ever made.) And it gets back to the kind of interesting, even elegant, camerawork that defines Shyamalan’s early work.
There’s a twist in The Visit so I’ll be careful of spoilers, but the plot is pretty simple. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent to stay with their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a post-divorce cruise. Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents because of an estrangement that happened when their mother was nineteen, and honestly a little logical thought makes the twist pretty obvious from the outset. Actually, it’s not so much a “twist” as a reveal—a twist disrupts a narrative in a way that makes you reconsider everything you’ve already seen, while a reveal simply sheds light on a circumstance you already suspect. The Visit functions like a mystery, with the kids convinced from the get that Nana and Pop Pop are weird f*cking people and something is up on their remote farm.
Shyamalan made this movie in conjunction with Blumhouse Pictures, known for horror franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge. They’re basically the low-budget Marvel, and producer Jason Blum, like Kevin Feige, has tapped into a formula that works for him. There’s a little palpable friction in the movie between Shyamalan’s rather extravagant sensibility and Blum’s lo-fi approach, but overall the Blumhouse treatment works and the more contained, constrained Blumhouse production style keeps Shyamalan honest, forcing him to work with a tighter script and cleverer filmmaking than just relying on SFX and “then THIS happens!” bullsh*t, as is his habit.
This is basically a found footage film, with Becca being a budding documentarian who has roped her little brother into helping her make a documentary about their estranged grandparents. A two-camera setup lets Shyamalan do some interesting things with perspective that you don’t usually see in found footage. Whatever his faults as a storyteller, Shyamalan’s eye as a director is stellar. He knows how to compose a shot, and he understands space and perspective, playing with depth of field, chiaroscuro, and framing to mess with us, using every convention of visual storytelling to build up a narrative in one direction until he pulls back the curtain and reveals it was something else all along. When they work, Shyamalan's movies are elaborate magic tricks.
The Visit is more like a conventional card trick than a full-scale illusion, but it has some decent scare moments, and there are no water-hating aliens or poisonous bee pollen or whatever other ridiculous sh*t Shyamalan has subjected us to over the years. A consistent problem, though, is ill-timed humor. Becca and Tyler are total movie kids in that they never get scared no matter what is happening around them, but they always have a zinger ready to go. More than once, a decently scary setup is ruined by one of those dumb children saying some dumb movie-kid dialogue, and it sucks any sense of tension or dread out of the scene. It doesn’t help that Becca and especially Tyler are supremely annoying to boot. I kept thinking about Thomasin in The Witch, and how sympathetic and vulnerable she is, and wishing that Shyamalan would knock it off with the lame jokes and just let the kids be scared. Still, The Visit is a huge improvement over Shyamalan’s later work. If you can’t wait until later this month and a better cut of horror movie, The Visit will do you just fine.
Attached -Shyamalan promoting The Visit in New York last month.