The man who brought us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs has been going through sort of a rough patch lately, creatively speaking. M. Night Shyamalan’s two most recent directorial efforts — After Earth (2013) and The Last Airbender (2010) — had genre fans wondering if the man had lost his formerly magic touch, and with good reason: those are two pretty awful movies. But hope springs eternal with the arrival of each new film, which means that loyal fans and “haters” alike will descend upon the man’s latest effort with a good deal of scrutiny.
Turns out that less is probably more where this inconsistent but plainly talented filmmaker is concerned. Without the pressures connected to big-budget projects like After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan seems to thrive. (His 2010 production, Devil, bears this theory out; Shyamalan didn’t direct that one, but it’s still a nifty little horror flick that was produced for a fraction of a normal Hollywood release.) And here’s another promising case in point: the simple, straightforward, “faux documentary” style horror flick called The Visit is evidence of a filmmaker who’s clearly back to having fun behind the camera.
A strange and sometimes weirdly atonal mixture of horror and comedy, The Visit is about two precocious teenagers who head off to rural Pennsylvania to spend some time with their estranged grandparents — only to slowly realize that there’s something seriously wrong with “Nana” and “Pop Pop.” At first it’s just typical social discomfort, generation gaps, and inordinately early bedtimes, but after only one night at their grandparents’ eerie old farmhouse, aspiring documentarian Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her wise-ass little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) realize that one (or both) of these old folks is dangerously unhinged. And they just keep getting creepier with each passing night.
While it may seem like Shyamalan is aiming at an easy target (as in: old people are freaky!), he’s actually making quite the astute observation here: to a pair of smart, sharp modern teenagers who’ve never dealt with the elderly before, the prospect of spending a week with odd, old relatives can be more than a little disturbing. Who among us doesn’t have at least one scary memory related to our first experiences with the elderly? We grow out of that stuff as we mature, but when we’re very young, the very old can sometimes seem like alien lifeforms, and that’s the stuff that Shyamalan taps into here.
Whether or not The Visit needs to be presented in a first-person “mockumentary” format is up to the viewer — it probably would have worked better for me with a “normal” cinematography style — but it does add a nice sense of creepiness to the proceedings. By keeping the cameras with the kids, the audience gets to play along with their confusion, alienation, revulsion, and (of course) various jolts, shocks, and late-night scares.
The Visit also benefits greatly from Deanna Dunagan’s (Nana) and Peter McRobbie’s (Pop Pop) wildly unpredictable performances. They always seem at least a little bit odd, even at their calmer moments, but these old pros really start to shine as their crazier character traits start to break through. The great Kathryn Hahn also brings a nice sense of energetic wit as the kids’ mom, despite the fact that she only pops up here and there to Skype with her unhappy teens from aboard a cruise ship.
The Visit threatens to get just a bit redundant right before it ramps up to an admirably engaging finale, but for the most part this 94-minute horror flick chugs along at an appreciably brisk clip. Shyamalan taps into some deep-seeded, primal fears here, but he also shows off a jaunty, sometimes even childish, sense of humor throughout much of The Visit. The end result is the director’s best film in quite some time. It’s not on the level of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but for such a small film, The Visit represents a big win for M. Night Shyamalan.