It’s frustrating watching a movie where the direction is so far and away better than the script it’s stuck with. This is an infinitely more frustrating problem when the director and the writer are the same person but such is the case with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort The Visit. It’s a fine movie, it’s definitely a scary movie, and it’s sometimes a funny movie but not as often as it wants to be but it sort of feels like a bunch of great parts struggling to make a coherent sum. Despite these frustrations The Visit is a credible start to the fall horror movie season and a kind of fitting latest entries into the catalogue of one of Hollywood’s most maddening auteurs.
The story of The Visit is rather simple and I don’t mean that as a slight, the more complicated your horror movie plot gets the closer you are to becoming the later Nightmare on Elm Street films. Two teenagers (young teenagers it should be noted not slasher movie teens) go to visit their estranged grandparents and then thing literally start going bump in the night. The kids try to play detective and are generally bad at being detectives because they’re kids but it helps the film bounce from tense set piece to tense set piece which is good fun. All of the solutions to problems seem to fall from the sky instead of developing but I’m willing to let that go for an effective scary time.
I’m not entirely sure what’s so intrinsically terrifying about The Visit but whatever it is it works for me. Maybe it’s the empathy I feel for children being sent to a strange house, I never much cared to stay with relatives, the space always felt a little uneasy. Maybe it’s just a general fear of strangers or unease around the elderly, especially older people who are clearly not doing as well. It might just be as simple as dark places and sudden noises, the Paranormal Activity special if you will. I’m not 100% sure why but I haven’t been as uncomfortable watching a scary movie in a theater in years. The last movie that made me so uneasy, that made me watch the movies through the corners of my eyes as I stared at the wall of the theater was Mama two and a half years ago. I can’t put my finger on why The Visit was so scary but it was dreadfully so, perhaps so much that I struggle to recommend it.
The Visit is, through and through, an M. Night Shyamalan movie and I firmly believe the hate has gone too far on Shyamalan in the last few years. It’s been a while since he’s put out a good movie but that’s a deficiency of M. Night Shyamalan the screenwriter and not M. Night Shyamalan the director. Shyamalan is an excellent visual storyteller and he consistently gets solid performances out of his actors (with the exception of himself) and The Visit is no exception in that regard. It might be a little too cute to have Rebecca as an aspiring filmmaker call out the techniques Shyamalan will later use to attempt to terrify the audience but I can forgive a couple slightly flat jokes if it otherwise delivers and The Visit does. I also quite enjoyed Shyamalan playing with audience expectations with regards to plot twists. I know that one is coming (really the narrative here demands it as something must be amiss) but because it’s Shyamalan I’m looking at everything, grasping at every straw, so when the twist in this movie is a little simpler I didn’t see it coming at all. It’s good work from a good filmmaker and it’s probably time to stop demanding he constantly live up to the excellence of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, that isn’t going to happen.
And so the cycle continues. The Visit quadrupled its budget at the box office this weekend so, barring catastrophe, Shyamalan will be back with another movie in a year or so and we’ll all be back here again with jokes about twist endings and how disappointed we all were with Lady in the Water and, unless it’s another After Earth, it’ll probably be a well-directed film that doesn’t quite have a script up to that effort. Hollywood really is out of new ideas.