M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the film scene with a trilogy of highly effective pictures that had critics and audiences alike cheering – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. There were comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg. The acclaim was earned. With 2004’s The Village, while still a hit, crowds and those like me who write about the medium began to tire of the shocking twist endings and stilted dialogue that populate his efforts (I actually dug The Village quite a bit). Two years later, with Lady in the Water, his fans had tuned out and it was to understand why with that bizarre picture (it’s a disappointment not without some merits in my estimate). 2008’s The Happening was where a new level of low came with the director. It was the first one to me that truly encapsulated the bad M. Night with very little of the good. Worse yet, it was boring.
His return to the genre that made him beloved and also scorned is The Visit. It takes the common occurrence of visiting the grandparents for a week to some serious extremes. There is laughable dialogue that I’m firmly convinced its writer/director wants us to be chuckling at. There are also some genuinely “boo” suspenseful moments. And in what we’ve come to also suspect from its maker, there are decisions with character traits that are just baffling. Some of the other lines intended for comedy fall incredibly flat. The teenage characters don’t sound like teenagers when they speak. And Shyamalan seems to almost be thumbing his nose at the audience with the choice to shoot in found footage form, which has become horror’s most overused cliche in recent times.
The Visit takes a teenage sister (Deanna Dunagan) who loves to shoot her video camera (hence our well worn found footage) and her younger brother (Peter McRobbie) to grandma and grandpa’s remote Pennsylvania home for a week. The catch? They’ve never met them. Their single mom (Kathryn Hahn) had a fall out with them years ago and is reluctant to let her kids spend time there. This leads to the other catch: Grandma (Olivia DeJonge) and Grandpa (Ed Oxenbould) might just be completely bonkers. It starts out somewhat slowly (per usual in this director’s way): creepy games of hide and seek turn to the Grandma’s night terrors or “sun downing” (which would’ve been a cooler title) to… well, let’s just say adult diapers are involved.
There’s the patented Night twist that you’ll see coming, I suspect. Yet that’s not really the point here. With The Visit, Shyamalan seems to be parodying the type of picture he’s become famous and infamous for. And there’s no doubt that some of this worked for me and did indeed produce a knowing smile and raised arm hair from time to time. There’s also no doubt that I found a lot of The Visit to be just way too self-aware and poorly written. Just because it might be sending up found footage doesn’t make it any less cheap looking and, truth be told, we’ve seen it used more effectively. That precocious younger brother fancies himself a rapper and it’s perhaps even more grating than you might be imagining. Shyamalan directed one child actor to an Oscar nomination with his breakout, but the adolescent youngsters here are serviceable at best and horrifying when hip hop is brought into it. It’s DeJonge who brings the creepy goods and those arm hair moments are almost solely due to her.
We have witnessed this filmmaker give us examples of horror/suspense that are first rate and low rate. The Visit, with its tongue in cheek, is written in a manner that’s just as bizarre as the movie’s hosts. There were times I felt like I was right there with what Night was trying to accomplish with the so bad it’s good vibe and others where I felt baffled. It belongs nowhere near what Shyamalan has accomplished early in his career nor in the basement with The Happening (or his later sci efforts The Last Airbender and After Earth). My best compliment for this all over the place experience? This particular happening isn’t boring.
**1/2 (out of four)