All is forgiven, M. Night Shyamalan. If we had to endure the director’s last decade of cinematic abortions—which ranged from the hilariously bad (The Happening) to the utterly unwatchable (After Earth)—to get something as hilarious, weird, surprising, and nonstop entertaining as The Visit, it was well worth it. Not only is Shyamalan’s latest movie his best since The Sixth Sense, it’s an adrenalin shot to the creatively comatose subgenre of POV horror. Even more exciting is that it’s one of at least four solid horror movies opening this month (the others include Goodnight Mommy, Cooties, and Eli Roth’s ode to Italian cannibal movies, The Green Inferno). One moment, the horror genre seems deader than the bodies it piles up on screen, staler than the air in the haunted houses it’s been fixated on for the past few years; the next, we’re treated to an embarrassment of riches. (I would love to know if there ever in the history of modern horror have been four solid entries into the genre released in one month. I doubt it. That it’s happening in 2015 blows my mind.) We should probably stop laughing at Shyamalan when his name pops onscreen during the trailers for his upcoming movies. Instead, we should be thanking the man.
Though it has the hand-held, improvised feel of found-footage horror throughout, The Visit is more polished than your average Paranormal Activity flick. Protagonist Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is a teenage aspiring-filmmaker who’s making a documentary about her first visit to her grandparents’ house. Her footage is not found, but consciously produced. Exterior transitions, music cues, and well-composed shots season the movie, as Shyamalan folds his vision into Becca’s. Accompanying Becca on her trip is her younger brother, 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a white kid with a lisp who’s so obsessed with hip-hop culture that he routinely breaks out into arrhythmic though periodically clever freestyles. Becca is prim and serious about filmmaking (“We’re looking for visual tension,” she advises Tyler upon handing him a camera so he can do his own filming), while Tyler is an obnoxious teen buffoon who calls out female pop singers’ names when he wants to curse (“Shakira!” “Sarah McLachlan!” “Katy Perry!”), and accuses his grandparents of “throwing shade” for barring them from entering the basement. And yet, the characters work—they’re idiosyncratic, annoying, and occasionally witty enough to come off as real kids.
Even better, though, are the grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie. They seem to exist on a vibration just a level or so above reality—is it because they’re old or ghosts or psychopaths or what? Most is revealed in time, but not before Dunagan delivers one of horror cinema’s great tour de force performances. It’s physical and peculiar, calling for her to change moods sometimes from sentence to sentence. She goes from grandmotherly sweet to monstrously furious with a ballet-like fluidity. As the weeklong visit goes by, the grandparents get stranger and stranger, especially after 9:30 (the children’s strictly enforced bedtime) and there is a flash of an image of a nude Dunagan (shot from behind) with her arms extended over her head, scratching her walls like a cat. That, and a few other moments in The Visit, are up there with Goodnight Mommy in terms of bizarrely inventive imagery. It’s astonishing that Shyamalan had all of this in him.
As evidence mounts that something is very wrong in that secluded house, Becca remains optimistic that there’s a sensible explanation for her grandmother asking her to climb into the oven to clean it (“The oven’s off!” she chirps, signaling there should be some doubt) or by her grandmother’s scampering around with them in the crawlspace underneath the house as they play hide and go seek in an impressively disorienting scene. (After the game is over and the grandmother is done snarling threats, she shifts tone: “I’m making chicken pot pie!”) Becca contends, “People are scared of old people for no reason,” and The Visit eventually coughs up that reason. Some will find it insensitive or even offensive (especially given all the laughter at the expense of the elderly characters), but it’s that nastiness that gives The Visit a convincingly old-school horror DNA. The twist is clever, the pacing is enlivening, and the performances are way beyond what you’d expect to find in a Shyamalan film in 2015.
There’s an insane game-night scene where Dunagan’s character looks straight into the camera and shrieks, “Yahtzee!” Watching this movie, I know exactly how she feels, and, I suspect, how Shyamalan does as well. It took a lot rolls, but he finally got another Yahtzee.