The prodigal son returns… kind of.
Few filmmakers have ever had fell from grace quite like M. Night Shyamalan. After The Sixth Sense, he was a brand name almost as widely recognized as Spielberg or Tarantino. Then at some point after The Village or The Happening, things changed. Audiences laughed whenever his name popped up in trailers and justifiably so. He made a number of absolutely horrible movies that turned his house style into irritating cliché. So, it’s a pleasant surprise to report the latest Shyamalan joint The Visit is worth watching. It’s actually pretty clever and effective. Not great, but good. With this guy, even that’s a surprise.
The plot involves a pair of kids (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who are shipped off to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) by their eccentric mother (Kathryn Hahn, great as always). The kids decide to document the trip so that Shyamalan can make a found footage movie. Their mother has been estranged from her parents since leaving home, so they’ve never actually met the grandparents. From the moment they arrive, the kiddies can’t help but notice that the elderly duo are damn eccentric. Worse, grandma has a tendency to roam the house naked at night getting up to all sorts of the trouble. The more the youngsters talk to their elderly babysitters, it becomes clear something is very wrong. They are more than just kooky. There’s something malicious bubbling beneath the surface and obviously that’s all headed down a one-way Shyamalan twist.
Fortunately, the movie isn’t merely a twist ending with an hour of padding. Nope, Shyamalan actually went out of his way to create something entertaining and interesting. The premise is essentially dark fairy tale stuff, which the filmmaker winkingly acknowledges in a darkly, creepily funny sequence in which grandma asks DeJonge to step inside her oven for a cleaning. The whole movie is surprisingly funny for the previously solemnly serious filmmaker. Shyamalan is clearly having fun again for the first time in quite a while and it’s infectious. The performances are strong across the board, the laughs are genuine, the scares work, and there’s even some emotional weight to ground it all.
The fact that Shyamalan has made an entertaining horror flick again is a pleasant surprise, but don’t expect perfection. The reason this thing works is because the director decided to shoot something small and without too much ambition. It’s merely a well-told genre yarn. The found footage aesthetic works better in some sequences than in others (more conventional suspense building techniques would have been dramatically more effective here). There are some cornball jokes that fail as Shyamalan discovers his previously untapped comedy talents. And most of all, the movie just feels slight. It’s an amusing genre romp that works, but certainly no masterpiece that demands repeated viewings. That’s fine though. Merely making a watchable lil’ horror lark is a huge step forward for the filmmaker. Hopefully it won’t be his last because back in the early 2000s M. Night Shyamalan was truly an interesting mainstream filmmaker (Seriously, watch Unbreakable again. it’s amazing how well it holds up, especially now that superhero stories are such a dominant Hollywood subgenre).
I’m not pulling a 180 and getting excited to see the next M.Night movie just yet, but it’s nice to know that I don’t have to approach it with the same sense of dread that I felt at the pit of my stomach while sitting down to watch The Visit. I’ll take that for now.
Universal’s Blu-ray for The Visit is strong, but obviously limited by the nature of the low budget production and found footage aesthetic. Certainly there’s nothing about the presentation that’s flawed, it’s just that the prosumer cameras, shaky photography style, and naturalistic lighting don’t pop like Furious 7. Likewise, the contained soundmix, though atmospheric, isn’t designed to crush sound systems. But as long as you know what you’re getting, the disc is well worth recommending. It’s pretty, just nothing that’ll give a home theater a workout.
There’s not much in the way of special features. Just a handful of deleted scenes that add nothing, a corny alternate ending that wisely wasn’t used, and a handful of character photos. However, if you the film made you fond of M. Night Shyamalan again and want to fix that, then watch the 10-minute making of doc. There you’ll see Shyamalan talk about how brilliant he is and how challenging it was for him to work on a low budget to tell a story he’s remarkably proud of. For a guy who was making a low budget horror film as a humble career makeover, the director sure is amazed by his own talents. It’s pretty cringe worthy stuff, but at least that’s not true of the actual movie this time.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Don’t clear space on your shelf yet, but if this is a sign of more good things to come from Shyamalan we could be making room next to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable soon.
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