On the cinematic scale from Michael Bay to Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan falls somewhere in the middle. Equal parts auteur and hack, his output ranges from the sublime — The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable — to the ridiculous — The Happening, The Last Airbender. His latest film, The Visit, is a bit of both.
The premise is a classic horror set-up: two kids, tightly wound amateur filmmaker Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge) and free-spirited aspiring rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould)1, decide to visit their estranged grandparents in order to give their mum, Paula (Kathryn Hahn), a break with her new boyfriend. Staying at their isolated farmhouse in the woods, Rebecca and Tyler play hide and seek in the crawl space2, eat cookies, and try to put together a documentary — hence The Visit’s “found footage” angle. Nan (Tony winner Deana Dunham) and Pop Pop (ubiquitous character actor Peter McRobbie) seem like a nice enough pair of fogeys. Sure, she skitters around at night, vomiting and scratching at doors, and he’s keeping something in the woodshed, but that’s just old people stuff, right?
Despite all the aforementioned creepiness, you may just wish it was as simple as that. Shyamalan has spoken of It Follows and The Babadook as his favorite horrors of recent years3, largely due to their limitations, but this just doesn’t tally with his giddy, more associative type of film-making — there are *lots* of ideas on display here, but they don’t cohere satisfyingly4. The cast are uniformly great, especially Dunham’s wall-staring, creepy-crawly geriatric, but they struggle to bring more than just the requisite scares after Shyamalan’s obligatory twist comes into play — what he might call a “revelation of character”5. The rest just feels like running out the clock (even if it does involve a truly creepy bedroom sequence and an ill-advised bit of grossness with a diaper).
Ultimately, The Visit takes a different path than what you might hope, discarding the rich and relatable vein of old geriatric horror6 for something a bit more by-the-numbers. It’s been well over a decade since Shyamalan has given us anything resembling a classic, and while The Visit by no means changes that it certainly makes for a pleasant surprise.
The Visit gets a 5.5 out of 10
1 Tyler also the sort of kid who substitutes singers' names for swear words. Trust me, it’s not quite as excruciating as it sounds.
2 Nana joins in in one of the film’s highlights, a scene that veers brilliantly from horror to comedy.
3 Or rather did speak, in a Q&A just after the screening.
4 For instance, beyond the ever-present snacks and enormous oven, The Visit never makes use of its fairy-tale vibe.
5 As opposed to, to quote Shyamalan himself, “the t word”. A rose by any other name, etc., etc.
6 And the potential for pathos. Isn’t that one thing most people are afraid of: growing old?