It’s been nearly 20 years since M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense. For a directorial debut it doesn’t get much better than this finale jaw-dropping effort. His follow-up, Unbreakable, was an understated gem. A few cracks began to show with the still decent Signs. Audiences and critics alike though thought Shyamalan was trying to too hard to stick another huge twist with The Village. From that point onward, Shyamalan turned out some truly dreadful films, leaving fans to wonder if he had made a deal with the Devil that came with a ‘Past Due’ date.
With the success of last year’s Split, and the announcement that Unbreakable will get its long overdue sequel, Shyamalan is officially back. But before Split, Shyamalan got his groove back with the found-footage creeper The Visit. It wasn’t necessarily as well received as Split, but The Visit finds Shyalaman back in full creepy mode.
Single-mother Loretta has neither seen nor spoken to her parents in 15 years after running off with her high school teacher. Now her children, 15-year-old Becca and 13-year-old Tyler, are going for a five-day visit to meet their grandparents for the first time. Becca wants to make a documentary of the visit in the hopes that it will mend her mother’s relationship with them. With each passing night on their visit, their grandparents’ behaviour becomes increasingly strange. Will Becca and Tyler survive ‘The Visit’?
Shyalaman Re-Discovers How to be Truly Scary
The Visit never reaches the heights of the atmosphere or scares generated by The Sixth Sense. Yet in its own right, The Visit is a genuinely creepy film that understands how to turn up the slow burn. Shyamalan shows some early cracks in the surface in the old family home – a locked shed, strange late-night behaviour, and an off-limits basement. With each night the grandparents’ behaviour becomes increasingly alarming, generating real fear for the safety of Becca and Tyler. The slow burn can be tricky; it’s a fine line between methodically ratcheting up scares and just being boring. At his best, Shyalaman knows the different and it shows in The Visit.
Rather than relying on jump scares, Shyamalan prefers to elicit tension from uncomfortable interactions and off-putting behaviour.
Rather than relying on jump scares, Shyamalan prefers to elicit tension from uncomfortable interactions and off-putting behaviour. Nana asking Becca to climb into the oven to clean immediately calls to mind ‘Hansel and Gretel’; it’s a simple, quiet moment that generates a great deal of suspense. One thing Shyamalan has always been adept at has been allowing horrifying images or moments to organically develop, often in the background. A game of hide and seek under the house leads to a brilliant ‘did I just see that‘ moment. The Visit boasts a lot of moments that leave you feeling uncomfortable. For the first time in years, Shyalaman has crafted a scary movie.
Unnecessary Use of Found Footage
By the time The Visit hit theatres, the found footage format was running out of steam. There were still a few successful found footage efforts getting released (see Creep), but most of the films felt like leftovers playing to the law of diminishing returns (i.e., The Gallows). The truly great found footage horror films either used the format to heighten a documentary feel, like The Blair Witch Project, or to embed some subtext into their film (see George A. Romero’s underrated Diary of the Dead). Most horror films adopted the format because it was cost effective.
Like all found footage films, The Visit also suffers from the consistent need to justify why people would keep filming.
While I might be missing something, there really was no reason for Shyamalan to adopt the found footage format for The Visit. The format adds nothing to the story or any possible underlying commentary. If anything the format actually restricts what is a genuinely creepy film. At times, one can’t help but get the feeling that there were some good scares left on the table due to the limitations of handheld cameras. Like all found footage films, The Visit also suffers from the consistent need to justify why people would keep filming.
Terrifying Grandparents, Annoying Grandkids
Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan, as the grandparents, are absolutely excellent. Much of what makes The Visit scary depends on how McRobbie and Dunagan deliver their dialogue as well as their body movements and facial expressions. The Visit is a horror film so we know something terrible is inevitably going to happen. It’s the sudden shifts in moods delivered by both actors and Dunagan’s eccentric mannerisms that deliver the scares.
As the grandchildren, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, both turn in good performances. Oxenbould is particularly charismatic and largely entertaining as Tyler. There are times where the two child actors do become a little annoying and tiresome, but this has more to do with the script than anything about the actors. Becca’s constant need to call her grandfather ‘ Pop Pop’, for instance, becomes increasingly grating. But the performances themselves are convincing and The Visit offers fully realized and sympathetic arcs for both characters.
I See … A Good Scary Movie
After years of futility, M. Night Shyalaman has re-established himself as a filmmaker who knows how to generate scares. He still shows a proclivity for twist endings, but at least in The Visit, the film isn’t reliant on how good or bad its final reveal turns out. Shyalaman didn’t forget to flesh out characters with satisfying arcs in The Visit and, ultimately, the reveal in the final act works.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B+