VisitDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn

After 2002’s Signs, a director named M. Night Shyamalan went into a tailspin the likes of which have not been seen since, well, the star of Signs, Mel Gibson.  Of course, Shyamalan’s tailspin was creative in nature, while Gibson’s was…well the opposite.  Six films have borne the Shyamalan name since 2002, each literally worse than the previous.  Fast forward to 2015.  Fox airs a little “event” series on Thursday nights called Wayward Pines adapted, produced, and occasionally directed by Shyamalan that aired over the summer and ended up being a modest hit.  Now with The Visit, Shyamalan strikes while the iron’s hot, delivering his best film in 13 years and combined with Wayward Pines, successfully reminding us of what a talent he really is.

The Visit represents both a return to form as well as a departure for the eccentric director.  First, after multiple flops in the science fiction genre, Shyamalan returns to what put him on the map – scares.  However, no doubt inspired by his producing partners Blumhouse Productions – the company that produced Paranormal Activity– this is Shyamalan’s first “found footage” style film.  Like mockumentary television comedies, I think the sun is quickly setting on the “found footage horror film,” but Shyamalan manages to pull it off here with a personally financed lightning fast production that took 25 crew members 30 days to shoot.

The Visit follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge) as she determines to film a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) first encounter with their estranged grandparents whom they’ve never met.  Now adolescents, Becca and Tyler have finally decided to start a dialogue with their mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn) that revealed a mysterious falling out had occurred between Paula and her parents.  Consequently, Becca forces her mother to arrange a visit so that she and Tyler can finally meet their grandparents, with a covert agenda that Paula can take a much deserved cruise with her serious boyfriend, Robert (Benjamin Kanes).

Becca and Tyler get their wish and with video camera in hand, they arrive by train somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, greeted by grandparents John (Peter McRobbie), and Dorris (Deanna Dunagan).  Becca and Tyler are driven to their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse where they expect to spend a week getting to know each other and making family memories.  On the surface, all seems to be on the up and up, except for two rules John and Dorris have for the kids: 1.  Don’t go in the basement and 2.  Don’t leave your room after 9:30 PM.  These two rules act as the catalyst for the film’s simple yet unrelenting tension.  What’s outside the bedroom door?  What’s that sound?  What’s in the basement?  You’ll have to see the film to find out.

The Visit capitalizes on simple, primal fear.  It is a potboiler that while effective, still does not quite measure up when compared to Shyamalan’s early work.  However, the film is a major step in the right direction for the auteur who like his Sixth Sense protagonist, was in danger of permanently fading from the public eye (and don’t give me that spoiler alert garbage, it was 1999!).  As a critic, The Visit does little to affect my annual lament about the lack of inspired, diverse, original content in the horror genre.  Still, it does offer some good scares and a reasonably effective twist.  Also Oxenbould is fantastic as the younger brother, Tyler.  The infusion of humor that Tyler’s character brings to the film is perhaps its greatest achievement.  While most horror films tend to feel like clones of others, The Visit does attempt to cross genres not unlike the Evil Dead sequels or Gremlins.  Shyamalan still has something left to prove, but now at least we’re much more interested in watching him try.  B

The Visit is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.