I could spend the bulk of this review talking about the precipitous rise and fall of M. Night Shyamalan. I could praise The Sixth Sense and Unbroken, give small credit to Signs and even portions of The Village and bury later “horror” duds like Lady in the Water and The Happening. I could extend a wilted rose towards the cinematic sharts that were The Last Airbender and After Earth but what’s the fun in that? After all, we’re no longer celebrating a funeral so much as a man’s comeback, because make no mistake The Visit is a comeback and a pretty damn entertaining one at that.
After After Earth took a bath (chalking up less than half its box office domestically) Shyamalan became an entity much like those in his bedtime stories. A scary investment prospect that may as well be horned and cloaked; a malfunctioning cash oven whom critics and audience members would align to lambaste with hands full of rotten tomatoes.
Over the course of his career, he went from working with respectable stacks of scratch ($40m for The Sixth Sense), to certifiable buckets of bucks ($72m for Signs) to pure, white-capped mountains of money ($130m for After Earth). As his career cookie crumbled, Shyamalan couldn’t even get his hand on the capital he was once extended for his debut feature ($6m for Wide Awake). But some, such as Blumhouse’s Jason Blum still had faith in the family-friendly horror filmmaker; one was still willing to make a gamble on the notorious twist-maker. With a production budget of only $5m, Shyamalan set out to make The Visit and in doing so has derailed the trainwreck that had become his career.
What makes The Visit such an intriguing success is that it is not that intriguing visually or narratively. The camera work is simple and sometimes even frustratingly out of place while the plot is clean and enviously devoid of supernatural explanation: kids go to visit their estranged grandparents (emphasis on ’strange’). That the story leads us to second-guess the veracity of familial relations from the get-go goes to prove that The Visit is not another Shyamalan horror-thriller dictated by an 11th hour twist. Rather the story is secondary to the moments that make it up, and The Visit is plump with woozy little moments of strange. Almost alarmingly so.
Take Ed Oxenbould’s T-Diamond Stylus (real name Tyler) who lisp-raps through his off-the-cuff lyrical stylings before emphatically punctuating his riffs with a tactful “Ho!” A hip-hopping 13 year old in-and-of-itself sounds obnoxious but through Oxenbould’s commitment to the character and Shyamalan’s playful, genuinely funny script, he works. We laugh. Hard. And not at the man behind the camera. This distinction is key: Shyamalan is finally in on the joke.
Even his greatest works are wholly humorless (100 bucks to anyone who laughed out loud during The Sixth Sense). Part of what makes Signs the memorable alien entity that it is is the emergence of Shyamalan’s brimming sense of humor (and not his supporting cast membership). Joaquin Phoenix sporting an peaking aluminum foil hat was the visual representation of the man’s evolution beyond self-serious auteur. And then, like Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potato mountain, it all went to mush.
In The Visit, that sense of humor has been rediscovered and amplified like through a tuba. From Deanna Dunagan’s nightly rituals (which may or may not include scurrying on all fours, vomiting milky substances, scratching at door frames, galloping beneath the house and baking the best cookies by burning the walnuts just a scooch) to Peter McRobbie‘s noisome pantaloons ripening and firearm maintenance, The Visit will induce laughs you never knew Shyamalan could muster. As The Visit reasons, “After all, you have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in the cave.”
Take also into account that fact that visually, The Visit brings nothing new to the table. The best way to save a buck or 50 million on a 2015 horror film is to journey down the familiar found footage road and though Shyamalan has done so, he’s also given some necessary rhyme or reason to the decision. To his credit, he employs the seemingly unpopular aesthetic but cleverly frames it through the articulate eye of a precocious wanna-be filmmaker, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), documenting this long-gestated reunion with her grandparents. So though this is found footage, it’s more a lesson on how to use such without making a movie that looks like it was shot by some 13-year old.
As the film accelerates, the humor ratchets up to delicious, walnut cookie levels and there’s some genuinely clawsome (when your fists unwittingly ball up into claws) moments of tension as various grandparents go bump in the night. And though we’re able to overlook the world’s most questionable decision-making mother (Kathryn Hahn) ever and kids willing to endure outlandish circumstances beyond the threshold of most volunteers at the insane asylum, it’s Shyamalan’s sentimental side that gets in the way most, violently derailing the last 2 odd-minutes of a movie that’s otherwise shockingly good.
CONCLUSION: The Visit takes a trip to the grandparents that’s positively loaded with laughs and an overwhelming willingness to be weird. Turns out that the twist was that Shyamalan’s career wasn’t over after all.