It’s a pity what M. Night Shyamalan’s been reduced to. But it’s hard to defend a guy that has done all he could in the last decade to sully and degrade himself as a brand with movies like Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. He started to redevelop himself this summer with FOX’s miniseries Wayward Pines (my review of its entirety here).
Becca and Tyler Jamison (capable leads Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are teenagers trying to reconcile their dad’s disapperance through documentary filmmaking when their mom (an underutilized Kathryn Hahn) sends them on a week trip to her estranged parents. Not long after meeting them and returning to their remote home, the twosome’s visit to their grandparents takes turns as frightening and funny.
The most noticeable aspect of this thriller is how funny it is. Horror-comedy might be a better genre descriptor but that really doesn’t do it justice either. That it defies these conventions is a point of strength. Much of the comedy is carried by the dexterous Oxenbould as a wise-crackin’ and rappin’ kid and the overqualified NY stage actors who play “Nan Na” and “Pop Pop,” Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie. DeJonge plays the straight older sister to her brother. Hahn’s role is thankless but she imbues it with her inner sunshine and continues to impress.
When the plot picks up and the turns happen, the sequences are well-shot but mundane. In a day where most horror films overdo the jump scares and crank weirdness to eleven (and this film has plenty), this film plays its cards surprisingly close to chest and keeps them grounded.
Shyamalan is too good a filmmaker to make a film without merit, whether it be positive or negative. A good example is the dichotomous relationship of Unbreakable and The Happening, both cult classics for entirely different reasons. Most often, his tragic flaw was that his directorial prowess has outweighed his screenwriting prowess by about a light year-and-a-half.
Here his directorial skill is on display, handling found footage with classical techniques (explained in-universe as Becca being a young film buff). He also displays flashes of restraint, humility and playing to his strengths. Unlike Lady in the Water (his other fairy tale film), the film doesn’t become overwhelmed by ego and nonsensical plot. But like his best films, he examines genre material through a human lens, whether it were a ghost story (The Sixth Sense), a superhero story (Unbreakable) or an alien invasion story (Signs).
The film is very Blumhouse, a production shingle well-known for low-budget-high-profit horror flicks (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Purge), which is odd since it didn’t get involved until distribution. The film itself is 100 percent the work of Shyamalan, perhaps influenced by them as was Kevin Smith was with Tusk (he was due to make it with Blumhouse briefly until they parted ways).
I’m curious if this return to twist territory if Shyamalan will be seen as reclaiming or retreading glory. According to my packed theater experience, there is a good chance, like the throwbacks coming thick and fast now, people want more the past. They just want it to be good too.
THE SUM OF ALL REELS:
A solid film for a lesser filmmaker, for M. Night Shyamalan, The Visit, modern-day reinterpretation of a Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, is mediocre. Although by the standards he set in the past few years, it’s already being seen as a comeback. He mounts the found footage format with the subtlety of baboon and rides it aggressively with mixed results.