Negative reviews can be fun to read. They can also be fun to write. And few filmmakers have occasioned the writing of a greater number of negative reviews over the last decade or so than M. Night Shyamalan. Following his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense, his underrated followup, Unbreakable, and the intriguing but not entirely successful Signs, Shyamalan’s career has been in a seemingly bottomless free fall. The Village was bad, though it looks pretty good in comparison to what followed. Lady in the Water was flamboyantly bad, and The Happening was so bad that it could scarcely be reviewed, only enunciated. Shyamalan’s fantasy adaptation, The Last Airbender, was terrible enough to instantly snuff out discussion of hoped-for sequels, and his Will-Smith-family vanity project, After Earth, was the worst–reviewed movie of its star’s career.
It is thus with some surprise—and perhaps even a hint of disappointment—that I must report that Shyamalan’s latest movie, The Visit, is merely mediocre. It’s a modest undertaking and one with its share of flaws. But it’s not the breathtaking calamity that we’ve come to anticipate from its author.
Begin with the fact that the movie is a horror-comedy. For a filmmaker so drawn to the fantastic (ghosts, aliens, floating arboreal toxins), Shyamalan has always been remarkably self-serious, with the result that the laughs in his films—of which there have been plenty—have almost always been unintended. (Remember “The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used”? And “I hear wind from outside”? Those were good ones.) With The Visit, Shyamalan lightens up a bit and earns himself some much-needed goodwill.
The movie is a “found footage” film taken by a sister and brother, 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who are documenting a trip to see their grandparents. This is no ordinary trip, however: The two kids have never met said grandparents, as their mother (Kathryn Hahn) ended all contact at age 19, when she ran off with a substitute English teacher who would later become the kids’ father and then leave her for a younger woman.
The idea that a single mom would ship her kids off to grandparents they’ve never met—and whom she hasn’t seen herself in 15 years—is not the sturdiest of premises. (As the kids note, presciently, “We don’t know their temperament or their proclivities.”) But at least the trip gives Mom the opportunity to go on a cruise with her boyfriend.
Of course, things start going awry almost from the moment Becca and Tyler arrive at the “isolated farm” where they meet their “Nana” (Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop-Pop” (Peter McRobbie). It’s too remote for cell-phone coverage, and the camera on the laptop with which they communicate with Mom via Skype is damaged in a freak kitchen accident. (Or is it an accident?) Nana and Pop-Pop tell the kids not to go in the basement—never a good cinematic sign—and to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m. But what’s causing the nightly commotion outside the bedroom door? What is that evil smell emanating from the shed? And why is Pop-Pop carrying around that axe?
The answers to these and other questions alternate between the theoretically frightening and the theoretically humorous, and theory meets practice often enough to keep the film moving along. (For instance, it’s a nice touch—equal parts creepy and comical—when Nana asks Becca to crawl completely inside the oven in order to clean it.) But it becomes a bit tiresome—and arguably, insulting—when almost every non-nefarious explanation for the grandparents’ odd behavior is some variation on the idea that “old people go crazy.”
Shyamalan doesn’t have much aptitude for the found-footage gimmick, and his script gets weaker as it goes along. Both Becca and Tyler are given phobias—her: mirrors; him: bad hygiene—that they can dutifully overcome in the final act, and the ultimate revelation behind Nana and Pop-Pop’s odd behavior is neither particularly plausible nor particularly surprising.
Still, there are good moments along the way, and the movie’s ambitions are modest enough that it never goes entirely off the tracks. Until, that is, the very end, when a melodramatic, message-laden coda (don’t hold on to anger…) is awkwardly affixed to the proceedings. It’s a scene so false and preachy and generally ill-advised that it could be the work of only one filmmaker. Welcome back, M. Night Shyamalan. We sort of missed you.