Let’s be honest : for at least a good decade or more, the only reason to follow M. Night Shyamalan’s once-promising career (remember when Time called him “The Next Spielberg”?) has been to see just exactly how much further it can plummet. Every time he directs a new film, he seems to dig himself in a little deeper : you think The Village is going to be as bad as it gets and then he serves up Lady In The Water. Followed by The Happening. Followed by The Last Airbender. Followed by After Earth. Are you detecting a pattern yet?
Of course you are. And so is everyone else. This guy’s movies just keep getting worse, and not just by small steps, but by leaps and goddamn bounds. Clearly, he seems to be following some sign that says “this way to rock bottom,” and that sign keeps moving further and further down the pit as he chases it. Maybe a change of strategy is in order.
Enter 2015’s The Visit — a film that I admit I skipped when it hit theaters but recently watched via our cable company’s “on-demand” streaming service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal now) — which represents exactly that. No more big stars and big budgets. No more big concepts and big effects. Just a simple, bare-bones, “found footage” horror flick —produced by Jason Blum’s factory for same, BlumHouse productions — that is about as far-removed from “wannabe-blockbuster” territory as you can get. And, whaddya know, all in all it’s pretty good stuff.
The story is pretty simple : amateur filmmaker Becca (played by Olivia DeJonge) and her would-be rapper younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going away for a week to meet their estranged grandparents, who they just call Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), for the first time while their freshly-divorced/abandoned mother (Kathryn Hahn) heads off on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The family sort of tore itself apart when the grandparents made it clear they didn’t approve of the older man their daughter was marrying, but when he turned out to be every bit the piece of shit they had warned her that he was, rather than saying “I told you so,” all they wanted to do was finally get to spend some time with their now-teenage grandkids, and so our youthful ostensible “stars” are off to a farmhouse in BF Pennsylwania while mom takes in the Caribbean.
Things seem absolutely swell at first, but pretty soon gramps’ and grams’ weird “house rules” come into play : Don’t go in the basement. Don’t leave your room after 9:30. Don’t mind grandma’s scratching on the walls and puking in the hallway. Climb inside the oven when we ask you to clean it. That sort of thing. And as the week goes on, events only get stranger and stranger.
Credit where it’s due : all four leads in this film do a super job, and that’s absolutely essential for a character-driven story like this. Shyamalan has always been big on the morality lectures and they’re as unsubtle here as ever, but even when the story starts to lag in the middle thanks to his proselytizing our principal actors are able to see us through the lull and carry us into the film’s frenetic final act. Dunagan and McRobbie are staggeringly kind and creepy in equal measure, and their performances seem even more impressive once Shyamalan hits us with his customary — and, in this case, surprisingly reality-based given his track record/pedigree — “big revelation” about them, and the kids, who easily could (and probably by all rights should, especially Tyler) come off as annoying little shits are actually quite likable and, dare I say it, even charming. You’re going to like everybody in The Visit — even the people who confuse and scare you. That’s pretty damn remarkable right there.
And what the hell — I’ve enjoyed hating Shyamalan over the years almost as much as I’ve enjoyed hating Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, but maybe it’s time to let that go. I already mentioned that his moralizing is as heavy-handed as ever here, and yeah, that’s still fucking annoying, but he’s concocted a really involving and unassuming film here that wins you over pretty quickly and rewards your trust with an extremely satisfying payoff.
The Visit, then, perhaps shows us the M. Night Shymalan that could have been and could hopefully still be : a guy who’s more suited to being the next Rod Serling than he is the next Steven Spielberg and who’s more at home telling tales of the inexplicable, uncanny and unthinkable that happen in our own homes and towns rather than on other worlds or in other dimensions or whatever the hell. If the relative critical and commercial success of this film gets him back on Hollywood’s “A list” and Warner Brothers or 2oth Century Fox or whoever shows up at his doorstep with millions of dollars and an offer to direct the next Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise blockbuster, I hope he’ll have the good sense to say “thanks, but no thanks.” We know what he’s good at, and it isn’t that sort of thing — it’s this sort of thing.