Once upon a time there was a visionary director named M. Night Shyamalan, who created a movie that would become a world wide phenomenon. It was The Sixth Sense and it became a suspense classic. It was followed by 2000’s Unbreakable, which didn’t perform as well financially, but fans, including myself, still hold it in extremely high regard. Then he hit gold again with Signs. I became a huge M. Night fan and cited him as one of my inspirations for my film making and stood by him as many fans started to drop off. I enjoyed The Village and Lady in the Water was flawed, but over-bashed. But it was starting to become harder to defend Shyamalan as his movies declined in quality and I had to jump ship at The Happening. Couldn’t do it anymore.
But part of me keeps wishing that M. Night would stop, look at what’s been working and what hasn’t, and really re-evaluate his career path. I want M. Night to make quality movies again because he’s shown that with care and consideration, he really can. So, after the failed blockbusters of The Last Airbender and After Earth, no one is going to drop that much money on Shyamalan’s movies anymore, so the best route to go is low budget. So, here he’s teamed up with low-budget horror producer, Jason Blum, who has churned out a few really good horror films, most notably the Paranormal Activity films. And finally it seems like M. Night is returning to his roots and going for something more bare bones. And that’s a good approach. Less money to spend means more forethought needs to go into his story and its delivery. It also means more promise of return because even if it pulls in a modest amount at the box office, as long as it pulls in more than the movie was made for, then it’s a success. Reported at costing roughly $5 million, this movie will likely make a profit. That’s just smart business and has proven time and time again to be why horror movies are such a lucrative side of the industry.
But of course, none of this means that much if the movie is a dud. I just can’t take another The Happening. But to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying The Visit. Much of that is due to the kids in the film. M. Night has an eye for young talent having discovered Abigail Breslin in Signs and making Haley Joel Osment a pop culture icon for a time. But he works well with kids and brings out great performances from them. I was particularly charmed by Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who before was in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which went under my radar. This film is a notable change of pace, though relies strongly on his comedic chops.
One of the things the movie has going for it is that it’s surprisingly funny. This is smart because it feels like they’re really brother and sister and they interact genuinely. There are occasions where their dialogue feels like a grown man writing for kids, but for the most part that isn’t the case and it works. In fact, these are probably M. Night’s best written children in his movies to date. Even in his best earliest movies, the kids he writes tend to be tortured souls to some extent. They work for their respective films, but here we get to see more realistic down to Earth kids who are relateable. They have their own personal hurts, but it doesn’t stop them from being kids.
The Visit is a found footage film, which tend to be hit or miss. In this case, it feels well justified because Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), is an aspiring young film maker wanting to make a documentary of sorts to find reconciliation between her mother and grandparents. This approach makes their dangers very immediate, but more importantly, the film making process is part of the story. It’s less a bystander and more an instigator. The inevitability of these kind of movies is that there is always a point where it feels like the characters should ditch their cameras and just find safety, and it’s no different here, but that comes with the genre.
He plays off young peoples’ fear of the elderly as well as society’s prejudices, which are there whether we admit it or not. But they’re crucial to the story and how it plays out. I remember my first encounter with the elderly. My grade one class went to visit a care home and sing them Christmas carols. But everyone there was way older than my grandparents and even then I became terrified of the notion of getting old. I could tell that they just didn’t have it all together in their heads anymore and I never wanted to reach that age. I still don’t know if I do, but at least I have some better understanding of life and ageing. It’s just such a scary and foreign world to a child and so this film hits us on that very base fear that many of us have.
By keeping The Visit simple, M. Night achieves what he means to. It’s funny and it is genuinely scary at times as well. Sometimes you need to get back to the basics of film making if you’ve lost your way. It doesn’t have the same depth and consideration as his earliest movies, but it does feel modern, relevant, and confident. And this is a good way to build back movie goers’ trust. If he can execute a simple story well, then maybe we’ll give him another shot when he stretches his limbs out a bit more again. And with his movies that have been weaker, I found that they unravelled with some time, but The Visit still holds up the more I think about it.
So, hey, I’m excited about M. Night Shyamalan again! What a twist!