I remember years ago a magazine cover with the headline “The Next Spielberg?” Next to the headline was the young M. Night Shyamalan, fresh off The Sixth Sense. That’s because like Spielberg, Shyamalan’s movies told stories about ordinary people facing incredible odds (aliens, dead people, protecting Adrien Brody from hooded monsters, etc.). This theme is what made his early films great, and his recent ones garbage. The pulse disappeared; his movies became lifeless and mockable. However, with The Visit, you can hear the slight thud of a resurgent heartbeat, a director running away from the light that is straight-to-DVD hell.
When I say slight, I mean that in the most literal of terms. The Visit plays like a movie made by a seasoned director going back to his most basic of roots. In fact, the roots aren’t even there yet. It’s very much a freshly planted seed. This is good, because whatever oak tree Shyamalan grew with his early work was chopped down and turned into cheap notebooks years ago. Time to start fresh.
The story is as simple as grandma’s apple pie on a warm summer’s day. It follows two whipper-snaps (whose father left them years ago) as they visit their estranged grandparents for the very first time. The oldest, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), an aspiring filmmaker who probably follows the work of Peter Bogdanovich a little too closely, plans to film the week-long getaway. Then there’s, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), an aspiring rapper who cleverly replaces curse words with pop-star names. He seems adorable and avoids being yet another a-hole child character. The two of them are quirky and spirited enough to be, which is saying a lot for any young character in any movie.
Mom (Kathryn Hahn) is the prototypical working parent who sees this as an opportunity to shove the kids off to grannie’s house while she gets to take a cruise. Someone is losing out on this deal. Anyway, I digress.
Soon, Nanna and Pop-Pop begin acting strangely. More strange than anyone their age should. Nanna inserts herself too heavily into a game of hide n’seek (while forgetting to wear underwear) and Pop-Pop takes “incontrollable bowels” to level 11 (which means he also probably isn’t wearing underwear). To say why they’re acting so weird would give away the Shyamalan twist we all so anxiously await, so I won’t spoil it.
The two actors playing the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) are seasoned vets with years of experience, but here they relish acting absolutely bonkers, capitalizing on little nuances that make moments in their performances hysterical and creepy. Like when Pop-Pop makes a no-no in his pants and slowly shuffles out of his chair and into the bathroom during a horrifying game of Yahtzee (which reminded me of that dinner table scene in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
But everything leading up to the twist is business as usual for the found-footage horror genre. There are a lot of creepy bangs in the night; things seen out of the corner of the lens. Really, nothing terribly special . If all the goings-on are benefitted by anything, it’s the humor Shyamalan effuses into most scenes. It’s by far his funniest movie for legitimate reasons that derive from character interactions or acknowledging the fact that crazy old people are equal parts hilarious and terrifying. It’s not exactly satire. It’s just funny.
Underneath all the startles and yucks is a truly effecting story of anger and the past, a very human kind of story that made Shyamalan’s early films so great. Now, if only Shyamalan could’ve avoided the trap falls of the demanding modern horror audience we could’ve had his best work since Sixth Sense. But the audience’s need for a huge twist, intense climax and dire circumstances overcomes the simple nature of the human drama underneath, making for a disjointed storyline. He does both very well—the horror/comedy and the drama—it’s just the two never come together or seem very related other than in setting.
Though the comedic nature and human drama may turn away horror aficionados and casual male teen viewers looking to protect their dates from scary demons, I found The Visit quite refreshing. I was always slightly amused or pleasantly startled or, more impressively, a little choked up. There’s a scene between Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette in Sixth Sense that always brings me to tears because of Shyamalan’s natural ability to build up to dramatic gut-busters. However far away The Visit is from that masterwork is incalculable, but the ending rings with the same heartfelt passion we all saw almost 20 years ago. If this movie is anything it’s a reinvention, and though it may not completely make up for 10 years of “meh” to “oh dear Lord! Save women and children first!” it’s a welcome “that’ll do, Night, that’ll do.”