If anyone is in need of and deserving of a comeback, it’s writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. Having made a splash with The Sixth Sense in 1999, the filmmaker proceeded to make a series of thrillers, each less effective than the last, painting himself into a corner by steadfastly adhering to the formula that made him a success. Intent on delivering one jaw-dropping, twist ending after another, Shyamalan found he was unable to surprise an audience that already knew a surprise was in the offing. He attempted to break the pattern with an adaptation of a popular television series (The Last Airbender) and a sci-fi epic (After Earth), both disasters that had even his most ardent fans wondering if the director was nothing but a flash in the pan.
With The Visit, a spare feature made for $5 million, the director returns to form with a horrific modern fairy tale while managing to find some life left in the found footage approach in the process. The film is as spare as it could be as it follows the misadventures of a brother and sister who go to visit Grandma’s (and Grandpa’s) house and find, much like Red Riding Hood herself, that appearances can be deceiving.
From out of the blue, our single mom heroine (Kathryn Hahn) gets a call from her estranged parents. Having left their home under a dark cloud at the age of 19, she’s stunned to hear from them some 15 years later and even more surprised when they ask if their grandchildren, who they’ve never met, can come visit them. Hoping this is the first step towards some sort of reconciliation, mom agrees and soon Becca (Olivia DeJonge), an aspiring artist who is filming the trip for a documentary, and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wannabe rapper, are off for a weeklong visit to their grandparents’ farm. Things get off to a good start, but the kids soon notice that strange sounds can be heard right outside their bedroom door each night, and they’re told that they shouldn’t go in the basement as it’s overrun with mold. There are suspicious goings-on around the farm’s well and a rundown shed that piques their curiosity as well.
Shyamalan does a masterful job of slowly setting his trap only to spring it on us at the beginning of the film’s third act. That the surprise is logical in nature and the director has firmly established a realistic sense of place with the found footage technique only adds to the genuine sense of dread that ensues. The fact that DeJone and Oxenbould are extremely likable ups the ante, as we’ve become invested in the safety of their characters.
Shyamalan has said that his first cut of the film was a comedy, the second a horror film and the final version was “somewhere in between.” The balance he achieves between these two seemingly disparate elements proves a masterstroke as the humor that’s generated simultaneously keeps the viewer off guard while underscoring the horrific nature of the kid’s plight. For nothing is more unsettling than when someone you trust is unmasked and a monster is revealed. The Visit takes this primal fear and exploits it masterfully, giving us a modern fairy tale of the Grimm-est sort while providing the filmmaker with a solid foundation upon which to build a comeback.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.