A trailer for the 2010 film Devil remains the only time that I’ve ever heard a movie theater audience laugh at the name of an executive producer when it was flashed on screen. It was quite the 180—up to the halfway point, the people around me seemed genuinely interested in a horror/suspense film set between strangers in a stranded elevator. Then, on the screen: “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan,” and the entire audience burst into a unified laugh of collective derision. “Oh,” said the consensus. “Nevermind.” That’s the kind of reaction a director gets when his two preceding films are The Happening and The Last Airbender. That same director is also handed a big-budget sci-fi feature in Will Smith’s After Earth, but has his name completely hidden on the project’s advertising by Columbia. That’s cinematic rock bottom.
So yes, it’s safe to say that the public perception of Shyamalan has come a long, long way since he was being hailed as the next Alfred Hitchcock after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. His name has certainly been a punchline ever since somewhere around Lady in the Water in 2006, but the catch is that his films, regardless of quality, have invariably turned a profit in the end, largely thanks to foreign markets. Point is, the guy keeps getting a chance to make more movies, even as fewer and fewer optimistic film fans hold on to any hope that he could ever replicate his earlier success.
The Visit, Shyamalan’s latest, may in some ways be the entertaining return to form those audience members were waiting for, although it comes in an unexpected and fairly misleading package. Marketed as a straight horror film in an attempt to play on whatever Sixth Sense fondness still remains in the American public, the film is really more of a horror comedy, and a surprisingly able one. At its heart, this movie captures a new side of M. Night Shyamalan—an older, wiser, more playful, less somber, and thankfully more humble director who seems to have tamped down his urge to spew pseudo-profundities long enough to make a movie that is, for the most part, amusingly silly.
Our characters are 15-year-old Rebecca and 13-year-old Tyler, siblings who have been shipped away by Mom to spend a week with the grandparents they’ve never met before. Thanks to Mom’s painful falling out with her parents 15 years prior, the grandkids’ visit represents a chance for the family to possibly be healed. Sensing this opportunity, budding filmmaker Rebecca decides to create a documentary out of the experience, which gives us all the flimsy reasoning we need to make a found-footage feature. She even brings an extra camera for her brother and—lo and behold—that cast-off Walmart hand-cam shoots the exact same cinema-quality footage as her own. How convenient!
All is far from well, however, as grandparents John and Doris grow increasingly unstable, bizarre and potentially violent. And that’s really all you need to know of the plot. This is a Shyamalan feature where it’s for once more interesting to discuss the director’s intentions and filmmaking tricks than it is to simply dwell on the plot and the “twist.”
What it feels like is a self-aware film that is parodying some of the (totally valid) criticisms that have been lobbed at the director in the past. Rebecca begins the film as an overly loquacious, pretentious-sounding would-be film visionary, seemingly a reference to Shyamalan’s own younger self. She is purged of these qualities somewhat over its runtime, becoming more grounded and venturing surprisingly far into deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and abandonment. Shyamalan seems to be acknowledging his own acceptance of earlier failures, which if true would signify no small amount of personal growth. There are many of these moments.
Regardless, though, it must be said that as the two kids, Olivia De Jonge and Ed Oxenbould are the two most likable presences in an M. Night Shyamalan movie in years. To say that their performances are better than Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening is like saying that it’s more enjoyable to scuba dive with a full air tank than an empty one. They don’t always feel like real kids—often like two adult characters projected onto child bodies—but it’s easy to overlook that because the actors are charming, and dare I say powerful at times. There are a few brief stretches in the second act where one forgets entirely that you’re in a “horror movie” and simply appreciates a few conversations between child actors turning in above-average performances.
With that said, the horror elements are certainly there, and they’re a mixed bag. Some of the grandparents behavior, particularly Deanna Dunagan as Doris, is genuinely creepy, as she wanders the house like a zombie at night, scratching at the walls and randomly vomiting. There are, however, occasions that seem calculated toward getting a scare that rather elicit a knowing chuckle or roll of the eyes instead. Some of the dialog is also predictably clunky—this is still Shyamalan after all. I smiled, wondering how anyone above 50 in the audience would find lines like “People are scared of old people for no reason—just accept that they’re old people.”
Ultimately, the film’s disjointed swings between comedy, drama and horror don’t fully undermine the fact that it’s simply and cheesily entertaining. This is the least serious film M. Night Shyamalan has ever turned in, lacking his usual deathly seriousness and pretension, and it’s much better for it. Once the twist is revealed, some of the internal logic predictably falls apart, but this isn’t the sort of travesty ending that plagued The Village and Signs. The Visit is much more modest in its ambitions, and simultaneously more confident. You’ll laugh often, be spooked a time or two, and get frustrated at the kids’ lack of action from time to time.
It’s by no means a masterpiece. But when your name is M. Night Shyamalan, that’s actually a step in the right direction. It lands a respectable place on our ranking of every film in Shyamalan’s career.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia De Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Kathryn Hahn, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie
Release date: Sept. 11, 2015
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.