I was born at the wrong time to hate M. Night Shyamalan. I was six when Unbreakable was released, eight for Signs, ten for The Village, and fourteen for The Happening. The first of his films that I was of age to see in theatres was The Last Airbender, and by that time the hate for Shyamalan had already seeped into the culture. My first real experience of him was before I had seen any of his films. In the 2007 South Park episode “Imaginationland”. He is called in by the government to find a creative way to defeat terrorists and all he can do is recite dumb plot-twists.
After that I did see The Sixth Sense but, otherwise, I avoided all of his films like the plague – or at least I did until two things happened. First, the reviews for his latest film, The Visit, were fairly positive, and second Todd VanDerWerff at Vox published “M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is an underrated masterpiece.” Realizing I hadn’t seen any of his other movies I decided to dive in headfirst, watching all of his films in the span of four days as I waited for the opportunity to see The Visit. Not only did I find out that Shyamalan has a distinct and noticeable style as a director, I realized that his style was keeping me invested in even his most asinine films. Shyamalan has a penchant for invasive camera work, long takes and extreme long shots being the best examples of this. But he also likes hiding the action in his films, using framing to draw your eyes to the unusual in the seemingly ordinary or to move the unusual out of frame only to leave you guessing. Most of the ghost sequences in The Sixth Sense work this way and The Village is filled with this very deliberate style. It is why even the more ridiculous films in his roster have seriously scary sequences, and it’s what makes The Visit his best film in a decade.
The story is pretty simple, a mother’s two children convince her to let them visit their grandparents who she hasn’t seen since she ran away from home at 16. When they arrive, everything seems normal until it doesn’t. Grandma sleepwalks and grandpa is incontinent and things get weirder and weirder until *twist* the kids find out that these aren’t their real grandparents.Formally, The Visit is a found footage movie. 15 year old Becca is making a documentary about her family and her 13 year old brother Tyler is goofing around as an aspiring comical rapper. Ultimately your opinion of this film will rest upon the success of these three aspects because if you don’t buy the premise or the kids it just won’t work for you. But it worked for me because those kids were super charming and Shyamalan found a way to make the found footage fresh again (it hasn’t been since the first Paranormal Activity).
Most found footage films ignore a crucial part of the filmmaking process – the editing. Because Becca has a passion for filmmaking you get to see her process of making this movie and both kids’ commentaries on themes both meta and natural. There are parts where you’ll get a shot capturing the mood outside and you realize that it may not have been shot in chronologically between the shots on either side of it because she just needed some b-roll for pacing. There’s a difference in the shots caught by Becca and those caught by Tyler, with the editing providing some simple but effective comedy while utilizing the erratic nature of being inside a horror film to create momentum without fast editing. The light on the camera becomes a flashlight, giving the characters a reason to keep it with them when things go south. These are all simple and practical effects of the writing on the quality of the film and for me it really worked.But what was the most effective here was how this does something that most contemporary horror movies don’t do: make the climax relevant to the first two-thirds of the film. Shyamalan uses the camera to force uncomfortable conversations between Becca and Tyler. First Becca asks Tyler about their father, and as he tries to brush off the questions she presses further so he tells a story about a time when he froze during a pee-wee football game, and how he relates that failure to their father leaving. Then because Becca wants to make this film for her mother as a story of their family, she has to subject herself to questioning by Tyler where he can ask questions and badger her attempts at deflection. He asks her why she doesn’t like looking at herself in the mirror, something he’s noticed since they left for the trip, pushing her to admit that she’s felt worthless since he left them. These two sequences present a tonal shift in the film from the earlier dark comedy to the more horrific elements, and then offer the challenges that the two of them have to face to survive.
When the grandparents finally start losing it over the fact that the kids will be leaving the next day, both Becca and Tyler are put in scenarios mirroring what we’ve already learned. Tyler wants to run away from the grandfather but he freezes, and the camera lingers on his face just long enough for us to see how he’s more than afraid, he’s ashamed.
Becca is upstairs trapped in a dark room with nowhere to hide and nothing to protect herself from the grandmother slowly backing her up against a mirror. As she is forced to look at herself the grandmother pushes her against the mirror, breaking it and giving Becca the piece of broken glass which she uses to kill the grandmother.Becca then goes to try and save Tyler, ending up compromised as the grandfather tries to strike which breaks Tyler from his freeze, sending him into a rage, killing the grandfather brutally by smashing his head with the fridge door.
Both the kids overcome deep anxieties to protect themselves and each other, giving the final 30 minutes of the film a narrative resonance not found in most horror films. You see blood and shit and real emotional brutality here because the film isn’t afraid to put these kids in real peril, nor does it allow them to get to safety without saving themselves. The Visit works so well as a horror film because Shyamalan brought a story and characters and technique that all work in tandem with each other.
Where lots of people loved the art house feel of It Follows or the gothic tragedy of Crimson Peak, for my money The Visit is the best horror film of 2015 because it works best from title card to credits. It feels like a wholly complete film, united in style and narrative, and creepy as all get out.
What do you think? Did you like Shyamalan’s return to form or is it just another nail in his cinematic coffin? Either way, let me know in the comments and remember to follow me on twitter@MyntWatchesTV or on Letterboxd.