Will writer/director M. Night Shyamalan ever get out of the filmmaking prison of his own making? After two-and-three-quarters great films, Shyamalan has delivered nothing but stinkers with his last five feature films, failing to capture the imagination no matter what type of movie he’s tried to make.
The Visit is a good start toward redemption, though. Like many upstart filmmakers, he became a victim of his own success, having to try to one-up himself with twistier plots and working with a series of big-name actors. The Visit is smaller in every way, starting with its no-name cast, only one of which has any modicum of name recognition.
The film jumps on the found footage bandwagon, with a slight twist to make it more palatable: Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent off to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), whom they’ve never met, by their mother (Kathryn Hahn), who had a falling out with her parents many years ago. Becca, a budding filmmaker, uses it as an opportunity to make a documentary about her family’s history, filming every second of their visit.
Almost as soon as they arrive at the house in the country, though, things seem off. Nana has a habit of acting very strangely after a certain time of night, while Pop Pop displays signs of old age deterioration, including forgetfulness and incontinence. Becca and Tyler attempt to play off the weirdness as normal things grandparents do, but the more odd things that happen, the harder they become to ignore.
Shyamalan makes a lot of good decisions in the film, including playing up the humor factor. If he had tried to make it straight horror, the concept would not have worked. Because he injects doses of comedy along the way, it not only keeps the audience on their toes but also makes the suspenseful aspects that much more gripping.
He also subverts expectations to a degree. There are many points along the way where Shyamalan takes us right up to edge of terror, only to pull back. By doing this kind of push and pull, he primes the audience well for the reveals in the third act. He also lays good groundwork with appearances by seemingly random people who dole out just enough information to keep the audience intrigued until the end.
It’s not a perfect film, though. It falls prey to the usual horror movie conventions, with Becca and Tyler making odd decisions on multiple occasions. It also leaves several questions unanswered, such as the film setting up the grandparents’ house to be a technology dead zone, only to have the kids able to connect to high-speed internet.
But for the most part, The Visit is the most enjoyable M. Night Shyamalan film in the past 10 years. While it doesn’t hold a candle to movies like The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, it does signal that there’s still life in the once-acclaimed filmmaker’s career.