M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough path getting to The Visit. Shyamalan had been on a very slow and steady decline since his breakout smash hit The Sixth Sense but once the thudding failure salvo of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth arrived it looked as if the once promising writer/director’s career was fast approaching it’s expiration date. He needed a hit and he needed it fast. After multiple attempts at more high-concept features that were met with a mixture of frustration and unintentional laughter, The Visit finds its creator returning to simpler and sturdier ground for this modest concoction of family and frights.
The film still bears marks of his signature style despite working within genre confines. The found footage approach seems as though it would rob Shyamalan of his careful sense of shot composition, something that even his weakest works bear, but the director gets around this by establishing the teenaged Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) as a film geek with the technical know-how to keep the damn camera steady. Rebecca wants to see the grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) that she and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) never met before and form a documentary about their week-long visit to the family farm. Initial awkwardness aside, things start off fairly well between the estranged generations, although the siblings realize over time that something isn’t quite right with their older relatives.
While advertised as a straight horror ride of creep-outs, The Visit stands apart from the pack with its emphasis on the family dynamic that fuels its story. Shyamalan is unable to avoid all of the pitfalls that plague other found footage entries. The middle section of the film drags without much action to rely on and a sense of repetition creeps in. There’s a particularly hair-raising sequence just after the halfway mark involving multiple cameras and a kitchen knife that would have suitably raised the stakes had it occurred earlier in the plot. However, the filmmaker is able to soften the lull of this stretch thanks to his juggling of the parallel stories. The family tension at the heart of the story, which began with Rebecca and Tyler’s mother running away from home as a teenager, infuses a dramatic backbone for the film to rest itself on so that it isn’t relying on shallow jumps and temporary scares.
The cast of actors is also stronger than usual for the genre, with the confidence of DeJonge and Oxenbould’s performances standing out especially. The young duo are shorn of the affectations that bring down most child actor roles and carry their roles with natural charisma, something that is miraculous in Oxenbould’s case given that Tyler’s inclination to rap could have easily made him an annoying brat. McRobbie grounds the situations with his aloof humanity, even if something seems “off” with John, but it’s Dunagan who carries the real weight of the picture. She’s frequently at the center of the film’s most tense sequences and believably portrays a character who can be picture-perfect sweet one moment and then flip over into unhinged hysteria another time. Dunagan’s performance goes a long way in adding unpredictability to Doris’ presence; we’re never sure when she’s harmless and lucid or about to fly off her rocker.
Like with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan is less interested in providing a constant stream of shocks and more with building a sense of creeping dread and unease, which is aided by keeping the level of danger created by the grandparents’ actions hazy. There is no left field rug pull to be found here, and the director admirably keeps things simple and avoids providing a far-out explanation for the grandparents’ actions. It isn’t until the climax that tensions reach a sustained fever pitch, and there’s a delicate balance to the proceedings that doesn’t put the children in danger in cheap ways or in unbelievable scenarios. There are some minor directorial decisions along the way that betray the handheld camera approach, like jarring establishing shots of the sky and the out-of-place use of music, but these quibbles are easily ignored with the vice of suspense tightening around the characters in the home stretch.
It has been rather dispiriting to see such a raw and original talent as Shyamalan devolve into self-indulgence and general incompetence in the last decade after the immense promise of his early work. But The Visit proves that there’s always room to allow for a fallen star to pick itself back up even after it crashed into the embarrassing lands of The Happening and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan will need to find the right inspiration before he can make another hit on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (and Signs too, which is much better than it’s remembered as), but The Visit proves that an idiosyncratic director such as himself can take familiar material and mold it into an effective work that fits into their wheelhouse of filmmaking.