It's tempting to call M. Night Shyamalan's comedic thriller The Visit a return to form, since the once-praised filmmaker finally seems to be back on his feet, creatively speaking, after a decade-long string of disasters, but his latest effort actually represents a new form for the filmmaker. It shares elements with his initial successes (mainly The Sixth Sense): there are scares and there's a twist and the kid actors are great instead of terrible, but beyond such superficial comparisons, The Visit genuinely feels like Shyamalan taking a gamble on something outside his wheelhouse and somehow succeeding rather magnificently.
For one, it's a found footage movie, which would seem to clash with Shyamalan's more traditional aesthetic full of smooth pans and graceful dolly shots, all reminiscent of Spielberg's style and compositions. Shyamalan commits to the gimmick as only a talented pro can, smartly utilizing a dual camera approach that maximizes coverage, but maintains visual consistency without flagrantly breaking the gimmick's rules.
Multiple camera usage in found footage flicks implies that some post-production editing has occurred and Shyamalan playfully makes his female lead an aspiring filmmaker whose creative eye helps justify the assembly we're watching. Shyamalan also wisely hired veteran cinematographer Maryse Alberti to shoot his movie and so The Visit manages to stay true to found footage principles while also being quite beautiful and effectively composed.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Shyamalan is capable of creating a visually stirring found footage experience, but it is a bit of a shock in the wake of his crappy output that includes The Last Airbender and After Earth. The latter was so poorly received it nearly ruined Will Smith's career, but Smith probably deserves much blame for pushing his son as a potential star actor on a roundly rejecting audience. Expectations for Shyamalan have clearly plummeted the last several years, so a pleasant reminder of his directorial talents lends The Visit a loveable underdog scrappiness.
But it’s far more than lowered expectations that makes Shyamalan’s latest such a fun time. For one, he seems to be far more invested and interested in the story he’s telling here, much like when he was churning out beloved hits. He’s back in horror territory and operating with a basic conceit that comes to life in excitingly eerie ways thanks to a core group of memorable characters. These weren’t elusive elements for Shyamalan once upon a time, but they certainly have been lately. So to see him apply such personality to a simple tale of two teens visiting their sweet, but strange grandparents in a small Pennsylvania town is to feel warmed by that old Shyamalan magic again.
Shades of Hansel and Gretel are tossed into the mix with more intentional humour than nearly all of Shyamalan’s previous movies combined. Fans of The Happening know that Shyamalan’s work can be endearingly hilarious, but it’s nice to be laughing with the filmmaker again instead of at him. The many comedic parts of The Visit stem from the nuttiness of the various situations, which in turn allows the humour to spill over into horror territory, generating an uneasy balance that’s intended to have us chuckling and cringing at the same time. The reason all the odd events and encounters manage to be so funny is that the characters interacting with or enabling the weirdness are all so richly defined.
More than recovering his talent for engaging visual storytelling, the biggest change for Shyamalan is his regained ability to direct actors, especially young ones. Shyamalan really misplaced that skill with his last few movies, where the acting was easily the most embarrassing bit of wreckage in a sea of disappointment. But here, the compact cast is tremendous and the found footage gimmick is bolstered by how utterly believable the characters are at all times.
Visiting teens Becca and Tyler are played by relative newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, both Australian actors who suddenly feel like incredible discoveries. Shyamalan gives them both a vibrant, likable character that through script and performance becomes a fully rounded person capable of communicating the horror and hilarity of the situation in equal measure. Becca’s directorial desires allow Shyamalan to comment on his filmmaking process in ways that feel more self-deprecating than self-congratulatory, surely a departure for the man who once cast himself as a writer whose words were prophesized to change the world.
But Becca is more than a vessel for Shyamalan’s commentary and she really comes to life as a sharp girl full of personality, headstrong and brave, emotionally mature and yet still innocent. Tyler mostly provides inspired comic relief, a little guy who looks best suited as an awkward teen, but is instead quite the opposite. Overflowing with confidence and charisma, he raps his way through scenes and replaces curse words with pop star names to wonderfully ridiculous effect. Tyler underscores the zaniness of the escalating situation as he and Becca begin to suspect their grandparents are hiding something.
Such great heroes need great villains, of course, and Shyamalan finds them in Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, whose elderly Nana and PopPop begin as sweetly clueless folk and devolve into crazed cookie-crunching, Yahtzee-playing monsters. Cookie crunching and Yahtzee playing don’t exactly sound like terrifying activities for horror movie antagonists, but Dunagan and McRobbie could make one rethink such an assumption. Their performances expertly settle into that special place where horror and comedy intersect, where the characters can be chilling and cartoonish all at once and without taking anything away from the other.
Four memorable, compelling characters in a single movie is something Shyamalan hasn’t had in a long time. Even one memorable, compelling character would have been a welcome addition to his last couple missteps, so this suddenly feels like a wealth of riches. It’s hard not to keep referring to earlier Shyamalan to describe the success of The Visit, but it’s still important to note that this feels like the filmmaker aiming for a fresh start.
He’s returned to the genre well that brought him such success earlier, but he’s doing it in a way he hasn’t done before, adapting his filmmaking style and openly reaching for laughs instead of accidentally stumbling upon them. The Visit is dramatically simplified, too, compared to his best works. It lacks the thematic depth of Unbreakable and Signs, trading in their tightly woven metaphors for charming chills. Perhaps Shyamalan has emerged from the ashes of his failures a looser, lighter artist. Maybe he finally saw the benefit of poking fun at himself. Whatever led to this change, it’s certainly welcome and unexpected. This apparent career resurrection, done in such smooth fashion, is certainly a shocker, a twist so unpredictable that it belongs in a Shyamalan movie.