M. Night Shyamalan is his own worst enemy.
Ever since 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a M. Night Shyamalan film has come with certain expectations and hopes, and with each successive film the latter has been diminished as he gained more creative freedom. Things kept going south until the unquestionable low point of the man’s career: the “Marky Mark runs away from killer plants” movie, also known as 2008’s The Happening. Shyamalan has had two “comeback” films since then, a dead-in-the-water adaptation of the popular The Last Airbender cartoon, and the Will Smith & Son vanity project that was the 2013 bomb After Earth. I jumped ship after Signs, a film in which M. Night decided to cast himself in a pivotal role that came off as arrogant grandstanding, inviting people to take potshots at the questionable logic of the plot. After that, his films (the bulk of which are written by him) continued to be ponderous, “gotcha” twist-y tricks, and many wondered if the man could ever pull his career out of its nosedive and just make a purely enjoyable film again.
With this weekend’s The Visit, he finally has.
That statement is not without a few caveats, but it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker utilize his natural talent behind the camera in service of a story that works and has a winning amount of humor and depth to it. The Visit, despite being co-produced by PG-13-jump-scare-horror-powerhouse studio Blumhouse, is like nothing else in the current cinematic horror landscape, despite what the trailer might be selling you. It’s a fairy tale, and Shyamalan makes no attempt to hide that influence within the film. That’s not to say that it’s all heightened dialogue and whimsy, because it’s also a found footage film, and if the movie goes out of its way scene after scene to justify that gimmick, it’s in service of the style being used incredibly intelligently.
Shyamalan earns the fairy tale nature of his story by grounding it in reality early and often, beginning with the basic premise. Precocious and wise-beyond-her-years Becca (played by Olivia DeJonge) has decided to make a documentary about the day that her Mom (Kathryn Hahn) got into a horrible fight with her parents as she was running away with a boy the parents could tell was no good for her. Mom and her parents haven’t spoken since, the father has left the family, and Becca wants to both allow time for her mother to connect with her new boyfriend, as well as seek forgiveness for her from the estranged grandparents. So, Becca and her brother Tyler (a goofily charming Ed Oxenbould) head to Pennsylvania for a week to meet their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). Once there, the kids find their grandparents to be slightly off but not alarmingly so…at least until 9:30 that night, when mysterious and deeply odd sounds emanate from behind their bedroom door. The stranger things get, the more excuses and deflections the grandparents make, because hey, they’re old people. Old people have issues and it’s perfectly normal…right?
Shyamalan has assembled a perfect cast for his story, a necessary trait for found footage since we spend a large amount of time with these people. With a few exceptions (which may be explained away thanks to the ending; no spoilers) the camerawork is both plausible thanks to a hyper film-literate 15-year old and that it’s playful. Shyamalan emphasizes the Haunted Mansion aspects of the spooky farmhouse during the nighttime sequences, which both critique and homage earlier Blumhouse success Paranormal Activity. There’s hardly any score save for diegetic music referenced within the scene or dialogue, and the compositions remain pleasing while still keeping the reality of someone shooting on the fly. Make no mistake: this is a master filmmaker tackling the often obnoxious found footage film.
As the insanity increases, the other shoe has to drop and when the reveal finally comes it is earned (unlike Signs’ water-averse aliens) and yet here is where M. Night becomes his own worst enemy. For the bulk of the film a large amount of intrigue and imagination fills the frame, and it’s at the reveal (or the twist for those of you less charitable) that the walls have to come down, the explanations have to pour out, the bow has to be tied. Although, as I said, the film plays fair and doesn’t cheat (unlike, say, The Village’s “gotcha!”) it still invalidates information the audience has been given previously, and ties that bow a little too neatly. The grounded nature of the film threatens to weigh it down, and though thankfully it doesn’t, it still takes the evocative fairy tale elements and neuters them. That being said, Shyamalan bravely ends the film on an emotionally raw moment (at least before a credits gag) that makes the viewing well worth it. He may undercut his own talent and ambition more often than not, but M. Night Shyamalan, after 16 years, has finally told another chillingly good yarn.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Sept. 13th, 2015.