Believe It or Not, M. Night Shyamalan Crafted a Fun but Uneven Flick With ‘The Visit’

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For a while there, following the dual successes of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it seemed that M. Night Shyamalan would be a force in cinema for years to come. That, however, didn’t pan out, as the writer-director slowly descended into self-parody, his twists becoming less effective and his films becoming less profitable. After the trifecta of critical and commercial flops – The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth – Shyamalan has teamed up with producer Jason Blum, the reigning king of modestly budgeted horror films, for a long overdue reinvention with The Visit, which sees the director dive into the found footage genre for the first time. The result is an uneven film, but still Shyamalan’s most entertaining work in years.

Employing the found footage mold, Shyamalan frames the story around a young aspiring filmmaker, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) attempting to craft a documentary about meeting her grandparents for the first time. The Visit opens with Mom (played a sadly wasted Kathryn Hahn) explaining the story of how she met the father of Olivia and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). Mom left home to marry the father of her children, who has since left the picture for another woman, but refuses to divulge the details of her tumultuous departure. Olivia and Tyler have agreed to meet their grandparents for the first time while their mother attends a cruise with her new boyfriend. The kids take a train from Philadelphia to Masonville, a secluded farm town in the wooded area of Pennsylvania. At the train station, the two youths are greeted by Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), who lovingly accept the grandchildren they’ve never met. What at first seems quaint and idyllic soon takes a turn for weird, and both Tyler and Olivia suspect that something’s not quite right with their grandparents. Good thing Olivia’s filming everything, I guess.

For all its flaws, which I’ll dive into in a bit, The Visit is still a fairly fun flick. Equally, the grandparents are extremely creepy, and their unsettling behavior slowly gets weirder and weirder. There are certainly more than enough effective jolts, both startles and genuine shocking moments. It also doesn’t hurt that Shyamalan coaxes plenty of humor from the situation, though the idea of Tyler rapping isn’t as funny as Shyamalan thinks. Of course, there’s a requisite twist within the film. Sadly, it comes rather late in the film. From the reveal on, The Visit is a rollicking good time. The last third of the movie is so much fun that it makes me wish that the twist was revealed sooner and the insanity of the inherent situation been exploited more.

But Shyamalan can’t help but fall into some of the trappings of the found footage genre, though it must be said that he employs the technique better than most. As a character, Shyamalan crafts Olivia as an all-too-smart teenager. She speaks in a manner that is far beyond the normal lexicon of a teenager, even an exceptional one. Olivia provides the film with much of the action’s narration, and her knowledge of the cinematic form aims to inject a bit of meta commentary on the proceedings. When the grandparents aren’t being weird, her character alternates between irritating and distracting. The character of Tyler also suffers from being wise beyond his years and sometimes irritating, yet still provides the film with much of its humor. Upon the conclusion of The Visit, Shyamalan includes an entirely unnecessary postscript, which prevents the film from going out on a high note.

The Visit isn’t a return to form for Shyamalan, so to speak. Instead, it sees the director tapping into a gleefully demented vein that he’s only showed glimmers of over the past decade or so. I wasn’t entirely onboard for the first two-thirds of the film, which staggers between good and bad. But after that twist, hoo boy, The Visit becomes something that an M. Night Shyamalan film hasn’t been in a long time – a lot of fun. Not only does that seem like a Herculean feat for the once-meteoric Shyamalan, it’s also an incredible feat for a found footage film.

 

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