the_visit_1Year: 2015
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Region of Origin: US
Rating: PG-13
Digital, Color, 94 mins

Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents. (Source)

I probably championed early M. Night Shyamalan longer than most. Say what you will, but The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and even The Village are stylish, sincere relational dramas housed within fascinating, twisty concepts. After his earlier output, Shyamalan seemingly lost his way, delivering a series of tone-deaf, silly films which quickly made him one of the most hated and polarizing directors in an outspoken, internet driven landscape. I’m happy to report then, that The Visit isn’t just Shyamalan’s best film in a long while, it’s a solid horror romp that thrives on simplicity and fun characters without taking itself too seriously. Yes, this one’s intentionally funny, but still built on a genuinely creepy premise that becomes more disturbing as the film progresses – it’s essentially no-frills popcorn horror film that doesn’t disappoint.

The plot centers around two precocious kids, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). Having grown up without their grandparents, the pair answer a request from their estranged relatives to come and spend a week at their home. Becca, a budding documentary filmmaker and Tyler, a wannabe white boy rapper agree, allowing their mother some time to go on a cruise with her new beau as they concurrently learn more about their family. Ideally a win-win situation, things turn bizarre quickly when their grandparents’ nightly habits and an early 9:30 curfew begin to reveal some disturbing encounters. The seemingly innocuous trip begins to take on a sinister turn as the week progresses, with Becca and Tyler doing everything they can to survive the week.

The biggest asset that Shyamalan has going for him this time out is a smart mix of humor and a simple premise rooted in the fears of his young characters. Objectively, the plot is what you’d expect, alternating clue-searching during the day with tense encounters at night and plenty of sibling hijinks in between. Knowing exactly when to make us scared and when to make us laugh, Shyamalan orchestrates a playful rhythm that constantly keeps us on our toes and eager to see what comes next. This isn’t anywhere near as conceptual as his previous films, but it doesn’t have to be, and the director seems freed by being able to just have fun with the curiosity of his two young protagonists. It all pays off wonderfully at the end, tying in the films bizarre plot lines (which I won’t spoil) and ending with a chilling idea that resonates because it isn’t ham-fisted or overstated.

the_visit_3Besides Shyamalan’s no-frills approach, what really tethers us to the film are the performances of his two leads, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. If you can’t get with these two, you won’t enjoy the film, but they’re also really easy to like and a pair of totally believable characters. As older sister Becca, DeJonge plays really passionate about her desire to meet and understand her roots – she’s the more straight faced of the pair and carries more of the story’s emotional center. To contrast, Oxenbould is the boisterous, “ethnically challenged” (as Becca puts it) young Tyler, the wild card comic relief. It’s a persona he pulls of with endearing charm, and it actually makes sense for his character as he uses his humor to offset the tension of his surroundings. Thanks to the sincere chemistry between the two, the film’s laughs never devolve into parody or anything too silly.

Opposite of the two young leads, Deanna Dunagan’s Nana and Peter McRobbie’s Pop Pop seal the deal, offering a wickedly fun duo of eccentric characters. The script smartly keeps them both at a distance the entire time, so we only get to see them through the point-of-view of their grandchildren, ensuring that we’re always on edge whenever they’re around.

Thinking about the film now, I realize that even it’s found footage presentation never bothered me once. Did it have to be done that way? Maybe not, but it’s done really well here, injecting a bit of meta humor thanks to Becca’s filmmaking aspirations and Shyamalan’s refreshing eye for composition and staging. Unlike most films of this type, Shyamalan allows his characters to put the camera down during some of the more tense scenes, allowing static shots to let the chilling images and ideas speak from themselves. It’s a surprising confidence that’s been missing from a lot of his recent films, and a great example of how he seems to have found his groove again. Try to clear your head of the publicly tainted M. Night brand, go in expecting a great time, and you’re bound to discover one of the more surprising horror films of the year.