With his crack at the found-footage genre The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan, the king of twists and regular whipping boy of modern horror criticism, returns to the silver screen. Many have been quick to proclaim Shyamalan as back from the dead, about to restake his claim within the horror genre. While that may well be true, and even though a lot of the criticism he faced for films like Signs and Devil1 probably wasn’t deserved, just because Shyamalan seems to have found a new sense of self-awareness and The Visit is a cut above The Last Airbender and The Happening doesn’t mean this is some masterpiece by any means.
The Visit follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a 15-year-old girl who is making a documentary, and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) as they visit their long-estranged grandparents (played suitably weird by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), located in the middle of nowhere, for the first time. While the week starts off according to plan, at night it becomes clear that everything is not as it seems, as Becca and Tyler see more than they bargained for. From here, anxieties about the unknown kick into full force, as Becca and Tyler attempt to unravel the mystery behind their grandparents’ quirks, to occasionally decent results.
Unfortunately Shyamalan’s latest is riddled with problems – from its two middling acts, to an annoying performance from Oxenbould2 – which many have been willing to overlook because it’s a far stronger effort than After Earth and The Happening. It’s not quite ageist as some have suggested, if anything it’s nostalgic for the yesteryears of childhood, spending time with your icky grandparents who are degrading with age and steeped in ooky-kooky practices straight out of the ’40s. However, this sentimental tone fails to meld with the more sinister tone a film like this needs to be truly scary beyond a few gags.3 In fact, it’s this failure to successfully make all of his clashing tonal shifts cohere that is this film’s real downfall. There’s a handful of absolutely magnificent sequences here that toy with the expectations of the found-footage horror film, filled with amusing jump scares that self-consciously “cheat” the audience, however for every strong moment we have to trudge through far too much dull exposition and weak humour.4 In a sense, modern jump-scare horror works best when it’s a series of punchlines, and in this sense Shyamalan’s comedy here is strong, but his non-horrific humour is weak, with jokes that seem to have been written by someone who revels in the notion of being “hip” and “down with the kids” but is way off the mark and even kind of annoying. Additionally, Shyamalan fails to buck the trend of the weak Blumhouse epilogue, although in this case it feels so, so Shyamalan for a change, drenched in faux-sentimentality and saccharine family values.
I’d be remiss not to mention how offensive the thematic backbone of his production is. The entire film hinges upon the notion that people cannot overcome familial separation – whether it’s divorce or disagreements with parents that lead to exile, Shyamalan repeatedly asserts that a debilitating hole will be left that can never be filled. First there’s the mother, exiled from her parents and clearly damaged by the entire affair. Following this we’re introduced to her parents, who are crushed by the absence of their children; then we see Becca and Tyler in sequences that show they are still reeling from their parents’ separation, with Tyler developing an extreme case of germophobia and Becca unable to look at herself in the mirror. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that none of these tensions are ever resolved, and that the anxieties are further inflamed by the film’s twist and the reveal of the purpose of Becca’s film. Shyamalan’s assertion is not only false, it’s plain offensive to anybody who has wilfully separated themselves from harmful family members and is tokenistic of the evangelical themes present in his previous output.
It would be absolutely disingenuous to say this isn’t a film without many joys – far from it; from the self-aware scares (they’re plentiful) to the overt silliness of the whole affair, Shyamalan’s latest is at least partially enjoyable. The scenes of actual horror are extremely strong for the most part (especially in a sequence of hide-and-seek between the foundations of the house) and the performances of DeJonge and Oxenbould in these moments perfectly encapsulate youthful anxieties about the elderly. Additionally, his comedic portrayal of sundowning is inspired, and his twist – possibly his first completely detached from the mystical – is highly entertaining. Shyamalan’s use of twists are his trademark, with his third acts making or breaking his particular mode of filmmaking, so for him to return with one this strong is a little more than relieving. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the construction of Shyamalan’s conceit, which allows for steady camera angles and impressive mise en scène to be encapsulated in a found footage feature.
At the end of the day though, this isn’t the magnificent comeback we’ve been led to believe, even if it marks an impressive step forward. Shyamalan clearly still has control over his craft, and while the good here never outweighs the bad, it is there and it is strong. From a long-time Shyamalan fan5 it’s great to see him back, and while it clearly isn’t his best, it is far, far from his worst. M. Night has a few good films left in him yet and judging from this film’s reception, it’s likely that he’ll finally get to make them.
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