Has there ever been a name in filmmaking that went from being the sign of a brilliantly minded young auteur to being synonymous with absolute trash than M. Night Shyamalan? His breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, was a masterpiece and showed a young filmmaker with an abundance of talent. Slowly but steadily, his abilities seemed to decline, and his films gradually became worse and worse, until he finally was seen as one of the worst directors working in Hollywood. I never thought that I would be praising a Shyamalan film other than The Sixth Sense, especially not one made recently. However, The Visit is most definitely a great return to form for the filmmaker, and while I wouldn’t dare say that Shyamalan is now clearly out of the woods, The Visit is still a very good film that shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely the lost cause his films have lead us to believe.
Found footage horror films are honestly so vogue in filmmaking these days, and every year, there is an array of different horror films that use the format in different ways – and the vast majority of them are honestly almost exactly the same. I blame the Paranormal Activity franchise, which started out great, but soon created a mode of filmmaking that was simplistic, and without an assured director at the helm, quite frankly amateurish and ridiculously bad. Found-footage horror films are so popular because they require minimal funding, and can be filmed on a cellphone, because the driving opinion is that the cheaper the film looks, the more authentic it appears. The problem is that this had led to the rise in the “anyone can direct” narrative – which is oddly comforting, because it allows amateur filmmakers to actually make something that looks somewhat professional and have genuine proof that it is popular, but sometimes, it doesn’t always quite work out that way, and the films are just truly horrendous. The Visit luckily has Shyamalan behind the camera, and even if his films are sometimes the very definition of terrible filmmaking, he does have experience and prowess, so at least his involvement meant that it would be something at least slightly unique.
Most found-footage horror films deal with a young couple dealing with the demons or ghosts of a place they were not supposed to go – a new house, a basement or even some catacombs. This might make them appear to be slightly homogenous. Shyamalan tries something new – he puts the film in the hands of two children, who are forced to go and visit the grandparents they have never met for a week, and over the course of that week, their visit is disturbed by the alarming and terrifying behavior of their grandparents, who start to act very strange, and the children have to try and use their own cunning to try and escape that week without ending up dead (which proves to be increasingly difficult as time goes on). I am sure we all have had that experience of visiting family that you don’t quite understand, or really know that well, and finding their eccentricities and quirks bizarre. The Visit takes that to an entirely new level, and while the film itself might be deeply flawed, the idea is absolutely brilliant, and I would consider the very concept of this film to be a redeeming factor of sorts for Shyamalan (many of his films have honorable and unique concepts, it is only that he is almost entirely incapable of bringing those concepts to screen without it being eye-scratchingly bad). The Visit is luckily a great film precisely because Shyamalan brings the right amount of comedy and horror to the story, which is fantastic.
Performance-wise, The Visit has some strong acting. The two children are played by Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge, who are scarily good at playing these characters. They aren’t nearly as annoying as many other children in horror films are, and they are perfect protagonists, and are both very likable and endearing, which makes their experiences all the more terrifying and forces the audience to connect with them far more than they would’ve normally if they hadn’t been so endearing. The grandparents are played by Peter McRobbie, a dedicated character actor and Deanna Dunagan, who is more known for her work on stage rather than in film. The actors were perfect that playing the friendly, endearing sides of the characters, along with the physical, terrifying sides of these monstrous people. The four lead performers in this film were all very good, and while their performances are not destined to become iconic in the horror genre, they all were dedicated and very good in The Visit, and made the film enjoyable.
Now whenever I watch a film, I normally read a few reviews before I write mine, not to steal ideas, but rather to gauge what the popular perception of a film is, and how it relates to my opinion. What I noticed with The Visit is that while most people do recognize that Shyamalan did a fantastic job, and achieved his best film in well over a decade, they felt the twist was unoriginal and you could see it coming. I understand the frustration, and while I won’t be revealing the twist, I will note that if you could see it coming, it is disappointing because its so obvious, and I can understand the frustration, because in retrospect it is very obvious. However, if you were like me (naive and captivated by the film), and you didn’t expect that left-field twist, then it is breathtaking and truly unnerving. It is a situation of whether or not you pick up the clues, and if you do, then the rest of the film might not interest you, but if you don’t, the big twist will really take you by surprise, which is something quite extraordinary, if not glaringly obvious right from the start.
The Visit is a great film. It has its flaws, but strong performances and a very unique story, made very well, makes it a fantastic film. It isn’t about to enter the pantheon of great horror films, but it is certainly an enjoyable one, and M. Night Shyamalan returns back to form. Whether or not he will be capable of keeping that up remains to be seen, and while I am highly doubtful, let us all just celebrate the fact that he made something that wasn’t dreadful, and that somewhere in him, there exists some remarkable talent. I will be sure to look back on these words when I am forced to watch whatever horrifyingly bad film he makes next. Yet, there is still hope…I think.