'The Visit' Lets M. Night Shyamalan Return to His Small-Project Roots

At least one other auteur has come back from big-studio messes to reclaim his reputation.

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M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t made a good movie in more than 10 years. He burst onto the scene with the multi-Oscar-nominated thriller-with-a-twist The Sixth Sense, then coasted to big hits with his subsequent three studio films. Since then, the director has been in a rut that’s starting to look terminal. His past four features were a string of clunkers that turned him from the “Next Spielberg” to a director who “should be banned from making any more movies.” But after wallowing in wannabe blockbuster dreck, his new micro-budget horror movie The Visit, the tale of a brother and sister’s strange weekend at their creepy grandparents’ house, might bring him back from the dead.

Someone at Newsweek jumped the gun with the Shyamalan-as-Spielberg comparison. But give Shyamalan another chance. Consider the case of another filmmaker who recovered some of his auteur status after a steep fall: fellow horror traveler John Carpenter.

Like Carpenter, Shyamalan built his early reputation on strong, unnerving movies that broke out of their genres, earning them the right to use possessives above their films’ titles, i.e. John Carpenter’s The Thing or M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. And they squeezed a lot of movie out of small budgets, at least at first. Carpenter’s run began in 1978 with the masterful Halloween (budget: $325,000) and thudded hard eight years later with Big Trouble in Little China (budget: $25 million). Likewise, Shyamalan’s adaptation of The Last Airbender (a financial success, at least) and the Will Smith bomb After Earth were bloated messes light-years away from the small, patient thrillers that made Shyamalan a household name.

After his big-studio failure, Carpenter went small, culminating in one of his most endearing hits with They Live in 1988. While Carpenter’s output has waned (understandably; he’s 67) his reputation as an auteur remains intact. Shyamalan, 45, is betting on a similar no-bullshit comeback on a $5 million PG-13 found-footage horror movie that might turn out to be comedic high camp. It is, to say the least, a gamble, albeit one that comes with much more upside than risk.

After After Earth was widely lambasted, Shyamalan retreated to the small screen, directing an episode of and executive producing Wayward Pines, a Fox series that recalled the spooky stylings of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The show found an audience and may get a second season. Turning to TV seems to have reinvigorated Shyamalan, forcing him to scale back what had become his wide, indulgent reach. His return now to the big screen is, notably, still small.

The Visit will be Shyamalan’s first original movie script since 2008’s The Happening. Granted, The Crap-ening was an abysmal movie, but working on his own scripts, as he did on hits like Unbreakable and Signs, beats simply cashing a paycheck for second-rate studio tentpole projects. He’s invested more than just artistically in The Visit: Shyamalan also produced, directed, and put up $5 million to make it. He told The Verge: “I just wanted to concentrate on storytelling. I just wanted to concentrate on the things that make me happy as a filmmaker in the sense of writing a great script, not thinking about writing a script and saying ‘How am I going to convince someone else to make it?’ which is already a weird mindset to be in … I wanted to put as much of myself into it.”

The story of two young teens visiting their Nana (played by Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (played by Peter McRobbie) was an audience hit when the director screened the movie last month at Comic-Con, the unforgiving nerd-culture Ground Zero. It seems to follow Shyamalan’s earlier hits, with a premise playing on potentially horrific deeds set in ostensibly normal situations. And as if he could possibly resist, there’s apparently one of his signature rug-pulls in the script. Get ready to see dead people or whatever.

Universal Pictures acquired the film by way of Jason Blum, the horror svengali behind Blumhouse Productions who has made a mini-industry out of producing low budget, high-earning horror flicks like Insidious, The Purge, and the Paranormal Activity series. Blum’s a contemporary Roger Corman type, overseeing young directors vying for their big break — except Shyamalan is no rookie. The movie comes out Sept. 11.

M. Night Shyamalan has failed more spectacularly than almost any contemporary filmmaker. But maybe he has found his sweet spot: A low-stakes personal project that allows him, a la Carpenter, to return to his roots. For Shyamalan now, it’s go small or go home.

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