Hundreds of years from now, when everyone reading this is long dead and gone, culture historians of the past won’t know quite what of M. Night Shyamalan. His 1999 break-through fright-fest, The Sixth Sense, remains a modern classic nearly two decades after its release, nearly every frame of the thing promising the birth of a storied new auteur. Then came literally everything else. Like many, I shade fairly positive on both Unbreakable and Signs, but even those movies feel like an enormous step back from his Best Picture nominated coming-out party. Then there was The Village... and Lady in the Water... and The Happening... and The Last Airbender... and After Earth. With so many wildly problematic offerings in a row, it’s becoming harder and harder to believe that this is the same Shyamalan whose releases once prompted excitement and anticipation... not to mention that said releases continue to be funded. He’s back again with The Visit, a film sporting a concept that, even by Shyamalan standards, is a doozy.
Representing the director’s first foray into the world of Found Footage Horror, The Visit stars Olivia DeJonge as Becca, a bright teen with aspirations of becoming a documentary filmmaker. Intrigued by her mother’s mysterious family history, Becca decides to commit the subject to celluloid, necessitating that she and kid brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go visit their grand parents for the very first time. Their planned one-week stay turns spooky-sour almost immediately; Grandma (Deanna Dunagan) exhibits some awfully strange nocturnal habits, while Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) visits the shed with alarming frequency. As the days pass, things get stranger and stranger, and it's not long before the two youths realize that they might be in serious trouble.
If that premise doesn't strike you as particularly scary, that's because it isn't. Billed as a Horror Comedy, The Visit completely and consistently falls flat on both counts. This is not to say that it stoops to the delirious, delicious lows of The Happening; on the contrary, Shymalan's latest represents a massive formal upgrade from his recent material, featuring handsome shots that actually make aesthetic sense, as well as actors behaving believably, and reciting dialogue that sounds almost human. Many have credited the filmmaker's betterment of Found Footage's typically shoddy elements of craft, which is the ultimate sign of his damaged reputation; making vague improvements to a film rhetoric that's designed to look amateurish isn't exactly inventing the lightbulb.
Yes, the movie is passable, but I personally would argue that's the problem. Who in their right mind wants to see a movie about possessed grandparents that's passable? Whenever thinking of my favorite comedies of the last decade, I'm always certain to include The Happening, a film with real ambition that falls flat on its face in just about every way imaginable. It might be a legendary disaster, but it's entertaining as hell, and if the man behind The Sixth Sense is truly lost forever, then I have to say I prefer the laughably bad version of Shyamalan to the dull, workman-like iteration we meet here. The trailers made The Visit look terrible, and while it's remarkably assured and not so easy to make fun of as one might have imagined, it's dull beyond belief, and fails at creating tension wholesale. It's the definition of a 'meh' movie going experience, a film with an unthinkably gaudy premise presented without any of the absurdity and recklessness that it needs to get across the finish line. Congratulations on making a 'real' movie, Mr. Shyamalan; now, for the sake of actually engaging us, go back tripping over your own shoe-strings.