A Surprise Visit from Shyamalan

by Steve Pulaski

There are many things surprising and unique about M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit,” but probably the most surprising thing of all is the genuine optimism from the general public and film community for this film to be good. Leading up to the film’s premiere, I saw hopes, pleas, and cries for this film to be good, contrary to hopes that a film tanks or winds up being a total failure, which seems to be the norm from cinephiles nowadays about any film. Given Shyamalan’s track record has been fairly pitiful of late, with his most recent films “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth” being massive critical failures after claims he was the next Steven Spielberg following breakout films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” this positive, cheerful sentiment, to me, is unbelievable. The things he was once commended for – twists, inventive setups, and compelling buildups – became subjects of parody when discussing Shyamalan with his recent tread into lackluster film territory, but “The Visit” rekindles the spark that was lost in Shyamalan’s films for so many years.

The film revolves around Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two young kids who are preparing for a week-long stay with their grandparents, John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan), when their mother Paula (Kathryn Hanh) and her current boyfriend go on a resort cruise. Rebecca and Tyler have never met their grandparents, due to their mother not speaking to them following the marriage and subsequent divorce from their father, so this vacation will be completely out of the blue for both of them. As a result, Rebecca, who loves film, decides to turn the experience into a documentary, featuring her and her brother meeting their grandparents for the first time and getting to the bottom of their mother’s long-lost contact with the two.

Upon arrival, John and Doris seem a little out of it. At first, Rebecca and Tyler just recognize the couple as being elderly. The only rule the grandparents enact for their grandchildren is that they cannot leave their room past 9:30pm. One night, however, Rebecca leaves her room to get a snack and sees both of her grandparents acting strangely, talking to themselves, vomiting, and engaging in what looks to be demented sleepwalking. Both her and Tyler are determined to find out what exactly is wrong with their grandparents, all while trying to piece together the strained relationship between them and their only daughter.

The Visit
Directed by
M. Night Shyamalan
Olivia DJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Peter McRobbie
Release Date
11 September 2015
Steve’s Grade: A-

In efforts to predicate “The Visit” off of what made his breakout beyond your average thriller director, Shyamalan also winds up breeding much-needed life into the found-footage genre. Through his characters, Shyamalan exposes the inherent inanity and frustration bestowed upon others when one person decides to go around and film everything they’re doing. Rebecca’s precocious “cinephile” tactics become used as dictation methods for her Tyler, who hilariously states, “nobody gives a crap about cinematic standards” when she’s discussing the bar she’s setting for her documentary. This nuanced manner of self-parody allows for “The Visit” to function on the plane of a found footage film whilst being a bit playful with the style.

It’s also amazing to note how funny “The Visit” can be, particularly thanks to Ex Oxenbould, who, after this and “Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” is becoming quite the child actor, thanks to his unique appearance and decidedly natural presence. Oxenbould delivers some of the funniest lines in the film, as he plays the antsy little brother who is an aspiring rap artist, spitting bars whenever he gets the opportunity. The prevalent humor also helps emphasize the terrifically managed duality of having uproariously funny humor and well-paced, frightening suspense both exist in the film. Miraculously, one doesn’t triumph over another, nor does one become the more dominant element, and “The Visit” remains consistently funny and scary, something I never saw coming.

I realize this is less a review and more the ramblings of an awestruck viewer, but “The Visit” is one of the most peculiar mainstream films to be released in sometime and I have no doubt it will have that effect on some people. Shyamalan makes conventionality scary here, with the old house, decorated with wallpaper, hardwood floors, and antiques, captured through beautiful, rural cinematography by cinematographer Maryse Alberti. This is the essential element of “The Visit,” I feel and that’s the fact that Shyamalan doesn’t do much groundbreaking here. Merging comedy and horror is something that has been common since the spoof films of the 1980’s, the woodsy environment and singular house in the middle of nowhere is an exploited cliche, and two youths trapped at the mercy of their surroundings is another commonality in many horror films. It’s the personal expertise which Shyamalan verifies in this film, reassuring audiences who have fallen off from him in recent years that he can still concoct a rich, involving story and shock on numerous levels. The film has the surmounting dread and strong scares of a good mystery in addition to humor greater than most comedies this year. “The Visit” already, even with its considerable praise and strong pre-release reaction, is looking at being an underrated delight from Shyamalan.