Remember when The Sixth Sense created a buzz in 1999 and got all those Oscar nominations? And then came Unbreakable (2000), which was a different take on the superhero, and Signs (2002), where aliens invade Earth while a grieving pastor questions his reason for being, both also critically acclaimed. These films all paved a yellow brick road for M. Night Shyamalan, giving him the reputation for being a fresh voice in the horror, sci-fi and supernatural genres. Unfortunately, he came out with more than a few misses, like The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008), and After Earth (2013), branding him with an involuntary roll of the eyes when mentioned by the less than forgiving masses. Thankfully, his latest contribution does the opposite by taking the already tedious found footage genre and pumping refreshingly new life into it with The Visit.
15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going to visit their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for 15 years, and at their request, she is reluctantly sending the kids on a week-long stay at their farm in rural Pennsylvania. Becca is a budding filmmaker and wants to create a documentary based on her mother’s life and familial rift in the hopes of a reunion in the future, so this trip makes for great content and she plans to catch everything on film.
When the kids meet their grandparents, they are excited and apprehensive. The air is cordial and slightly awkward as they get to know each other, and they explore their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop’s (Peter McRobbie) farm, trying get an angle on them, but things get stranger and stranger as the week goes by. The seniors exhibit odd and disturbing behaviour, warning their grandkids to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m. because of Nana’s strange nocturnal afflictions. This leaves Becca and Tyler baffled and soon terrified as a gruesome secret is revealed.
I was on the fence as to whether I would see this latest Shyamalan attempt, since I too was one of those eye-rollers. I loved his first few films, and I think Devil was underrated, but The Village and The Happening left a bad taste in my mouth, and I became wary of the now expected twist with his films. He regained my trust recently with Wayward Pines, where he directed the pilot and produced the series. I had to give him credit with his efforts to tell this weird and wonderful tale, and now he has won me over again with The Visit.
It was refreshing that I didn’t know what to expect from seeing the commercials and the trailer. I did wonder if it was a comedy because of Kathryn Hahn, who has a long comedic resume, and I was right, but there was no slapstick here. Instead, there was a slow burn build-up of weirdness and Oxenbould’s brilliant portrayal of the nerdy and hilarious hip-hop enthusiast Tyler made the film for me. His timing broke up tension in a way that mirrored audience reactions and added to the overall mystery of the plot. Dunagan and McRobbie took the archetypical loving grandparents to a sinister place and didn’t hold back once the plot turned, and look out for some old school Brothers Grimm references. Oh, and that Shyamalan twist is very present and will not disappoint.
As the end credits rolled for The Visit, I couldn’t help but think this was a cinematic raspberry blown at those of us who reminded him how terrible some of his efforts were, and to offset the many Golden Raspberry Awards he’s won in the past. This time, with a mere 5 million dollar budget, Shyamalan redeems himself. Aside from a couple of dead-end scares and a somewhat sappy ending, he successfully leads us down a road with blinders on only to rip them off and shove us off a pretty crazy cliff. Go see it if you want a surprising horror comedy with Hansel and Gretel overtones and a decent found footage revival.