At this point, can there be anything new and insightful that one could say about the downfall of the once beloved M. Night Shyamalan? As hilariously awful as his last few films have been, how far can one guy survive just on the approval of the “for lulz” crowd? It’s why I’ve been cautious about his latest film, The Visit, which seems like the kind of back-to-basics passion project a guy with his reputation would need. I have been following this one with what little information one could find before the first trailer came out. It was produced by Shyamalan with money coming out of his own pocket and then later getting backed by the horror factory, Blumhouse Pictures. The big question that The Visit will have to answer is nothing like what the twist will be or what the bigger meanings are, but simply can Shyamalan deliver when you strip him of all the flash and polish of a big budget and have him rely just on his strength as a storyteller.
In an effort to give their mother time to a week to have fun with her new boyfriend, Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent to spend a week with their grandparents. However, once they get there they find that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are not quite what they expected.
This is probably one of the harder reviews I’ve ever had to write because after viewing the film I had no idea what to make of it. It’s taken days of contemplating and re-watching the film again to really get a grasp at how I feel about the movie. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that The Visit…is actually pretty good. I hesitate to say it’s great just yet, but who knows maybe another re-watch will fix that. My initial reaction doesn’t have anything to do with the film being confusing or complex, but the film is so strange and bizarre that it takes you almost completely off guard.
The film is a horror/comedy and in a way, it’s a horror/comedy in its most pure form. The humor isn’t always gags and one-liners, though there are plenty of them, the humor of the film is mostly that uncomfortable humor. The kind of deeply unsettling moment where you’re laughing because you feel like you have no choice, you have that nervous “should I or should I not” type of laughter and the film revels in it. The horror and comedy blend in ways where most similar films do not. There’s often either a disconnect between the jokes and the horror or it leans too heavily to one side over the other. This is never a problem that happens in The Visit and it’s a better film because of it.
The Visit is also interesting in how it manages to be very self-aware, not just of general horror tropes, but tropes that you would find in a standard Shyamalan film – the broken family dynamic, child-centric stories, past events playing a crucial role in the story, the big twist, etc. A lot of themes from previous Shyamalan films, even some of his filming techniques, come into play, but there’s a satirical edge to it that has never been in any of his other films. This is the first time I think Shyamalan felt like he wanted to both challenge himself, but also keeps things loose and fun. Fun is another thing I should mention because The Visit is an incredibly fun movie. It’s a film built to be experienced with a crowd and it plays to that type of midnight movie madness atmosphere.
Another strong suit of the film is the actors. Everyone is great in the film. Olivia DeJonge, while gets little to really do initially, aside from being the straight-laced of the two siblings, becomes the heart of the film as it goes on. Ed Oxenbould did a good job with a character that I thought would drive me insane (he’s a little white rapper, you see), but he grew on me as the film went on and a lot of it was due to his timing and likability. Also, they’re both Australian, I did not realize that until after watching the film and looking up the actors. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie also do a spectacular job with their weird characters. There are a surprising amount of layers to their performances and their physicality, it’s a strong effort for both their parts and they pulled it off very well. I should also mention Kathryn Hahn, who plays the mother. For the few moments that she’s on-screen, she kills it. She nails the emotional elements with subtlety and nuance and her dynamic with the kids are great.
If I have any downside, it’s that I still don’t see why this needed to be done in a found footage style. Though, it’s less “found footage” and more “mockumentary,” to be fair. I don’t think it added anything particularly new or interesting that wouldn’t have been found in a film shot like any other Shyamalan film (which are generally meticulously thought out), even with keeping the whole Rebecca making a documentary angle. It’s almost unfair to the film since the mockumentary element is well done. There is no music, the jump scares happen organically, the use of common film techniques makes sense, there really isn’t much that’s done badly. I simply don’t see why it needed to be shot this way.
The Visit is a film that is obviously not going to gel with everyone, made clear by the very divisive reactions that I’ve seen from people. It’s strange bizarre, but familiar in themes, it is wild and eccentric, but restraint and claustrophobic, it’s a film full of contrasts and contradictions to the point that even if this is not Shyamalan’s best, it is by far his most interesting film in a very long time. By preying on childhood fears of the elderly and the almost fairytale like elements of the story, The Visit is less like the Hitchcockian films of Shyamalan’s past and more in tune to things like Goosebumps or Tales from the Crypt, and I can already bet you that this will probably be a better Goosebumps-like film than the actual Goosebumps movie coming out soon. At the very least, it gives me hope for Shyamalan to reach the heights of his early career again; currently working on Labor of Love, starring Bruce Willis.