Sean and I both liked M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ a lot. We tried to make sense of its charms, and assess how it stacks up next to the rest of his catalogue.
Winston Cook-Wilson: I did not have the experience of seeing The Sixth Sense when it came out; Unbreakable, too, I saw years after the fact. But I never liked either of those movies much, even without knowing The Sixth Sense twist in advance. They are supposedly M. Night’s best work — that which gave him a platform to do all of the other insane, infuriating, and then unintentionally hilarious films that followed. To me, his trademark style — insofar as I recognized one — was like some pretentious combination of William Friedkin and Spielberg. Eventually, it simply became all about the twists, which started as the cinematic equivalent of middle-school-bully forearm rug burning, and then, eventually, onset vertigo that made you want to walk out of the theater. The Village would be the major turning point, and then it started to get so bad that they took his name out of the trailers. The Visit, to me, felt like a whole new experience, which is why I loved it so much — there’s so much more humor and disorderly conduct, and it’s just a jaw-dropping experience.
Sean Hutchinson: Actual disorderly conduct is a good way to put Shyamalan’s output from the past few years into context. Up to now, it got so bad that it was almost a mandate to hate the guy — even retroactively — if you brought up any of his movies. I saw The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and the next few movies in the theater because I was totally into the schtick at the time. A lot of people were. Newsweek even had the audacity to plaster his face on the cover of their mag around the time Signs came out and label him “The Next Spielberg.” But The Village was definitely the turning point, though I’ll go to bat for that movie.
Still, you could see the cracks beginning to form, where he fell victim to the twists and the creepy aesthetics that came to define him after The Sixth Sense. It all really fell apart with Lady in the Water and everything that came next. The Visit was hopeful, for me, going in because he was forced to go back to horror basics. I don’t think it’s his best movie, but I’d say it’s a goddamn satisfying return to form. But you’d put it on top of his filmography?
WCW: Yes, I can see being into The Village; it is at least an unforgettable movie, even if it’s not an experience I enjoyed. Lady in the Water is an all-time legendary horrible film, made for no discernable audience.
For my money, The Visit is his most compelling film, and makes the most of the ways in which M. Night is crazy in a good way. I love that the twist is basically a standard horror movie turn, not like his old carpet pulls. Things don’t make more sense than they need to; there’s not a lot of faux-depth we don’t care about. It’s not genre-blurring plotting that does the good work here, but the frantic pacing, near-John Waters level of lowbrow, weird-out humor, and the fantastic performances of the villains: the inexplicably schizophrenic grandparents. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel of horror conventions structurally, he puts all his energy into the sordid, silly details, which feels like a better place for him to me.
Then again, I love conventionally structured but outlandishly realized horror films. I also believe in the possibilities of the found footage genre. I’m not one of those people who view it as anti-cinematic (see the meta-jokes about that in the movie). The basic template of the plotting and scare tactics here are textbook found-footage, in the vein of the later, more humor-driven Paranormal Activity films, but the feeling it gives you in the moment is more like Cabin in the Woods. We’re constantly struggling to figure out why things are happening, feeling completely unprepared for the developments to come, and never sure whether to laugh or jump. And all of this makes for some potent and unusual scares, especially in the second half.
What would you do if your grandmother appeared suddenly in the tunnels underneath her house, crab walking like Regan in The Exorcist, demonically screamed “Yahtzee!” at the top of her lungs with her mouth full of cookies or stood at your door all night with a knife? What if you found a stack of shit-covered diapers in your grandfather’s shed, walked in on him sticking a rifle in his mouth, or listened to him talk about a white creature with yellow eyes he saw at night?
SH: The question of whether The Visit has an actual twist has racked my brain ever since I saw it. To suggest it has a patented Shyamalan twist would somehow seem to belittle what happens, so you’re right. Calling it a horror movie turn instead of a twist is entirely appropriate. Twists are cheap, turns are clever, and what happens in The Visit is clever in that it completely recontextualizes the movie without devaluing the level of creepiness in the setup.
What surprised me the most is that The Visit is like a good version of The Happening. All kinds of crazy shit is happening onscreen, and yet the difference lies in the tone. In The Happening his characters were deathly serious about the farcical premise, but here he embraced the comedic aspects of his inherently ridiculous plot and it pays off. One of the best parts about The Visit is how funny it is one moment before it’s absolutely terrifying the next. It expertly sets you up to scare you more.
I was extremely skeptical about the found footage aspect because it’s a genre that’s been done to death without anyone really progressing the method. Also, nine times out of 10 the movies are next-level bad. Shyamalan doesn’t progress the method, but he does assimilate it into the story to reconcile the decision to make it a found footage movie. The character Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker documenting the first trip to see her estranged grandparents. Normally in found footage stuff you always question what the hell the people are doing still carrying the camera, but here you totally believe this annoying tweenage girl and her little brother would always be messing around with the camera, and when things start getting weird you get the sense they keep filming just to document the things they can’t explain.
I also wanted to mention it’s fascinating to me that Shyamalan chose to go found footage, and the movie that really kicked off the contemporary found footage horror genre, The Blair Witch Project, came out in 1999, the same year of The Sixth Sense. I wasn’t sure if that was over-intellectualizing it, but in a way it’s Shyamalan going back to reclaim something in his past maybe. But anyway, what makes The Visit standout to you as Shyamalan’s best movie?
WCW: I hadn’t thought about how the confusing, farcical feeling is similar to The Happening, but in a convincing and good way. He certainly does a good job with making the found footage frame work; the last found footage film I saw, The Gallows, didn’t even try to make it believable, to an extent that was distracting. I am essentially a Paranormal freak (I even got into The Marked Ones) but Gallows that was miserable.
My argument is that by narrowing his scope, ambitions, and budget, he finally made a movie that rivets you the entire way through without waxing pseudo-intellectual in groan-inducing ways that take you out of the experience. I only found the expositional scenes with the kids (particularly the younger brother, the “ethnically confused” Asher Roth-style rapper in the making) difficult; I was worried at that point. I don’t think M. Night is someone who was ever capable of reinventing the blockbuster horror-thriller, but he has weird enough sensibilities to make memorable films that are conventional at their basic roots. He could do stuff on the level of a James Wan if he cut his losses and stopped overthinking being an auteur. I like the humility of this movie. Where does it rank for you?
SH: I definitely think this is what Shyamalan needed to get back in line. The problem with him seemed to be one of restraint — When studios gave him $150 million to make a cartoon adaptation he lost his way, but by going micro-budget with a little $5 million movie guaranteed to make back its money he had a chance to wipe the slate clean.
The Wan/Shyamalan contrast is fascinating because their career trajectories are eerily similar. Except the thing is James Wan delivered The Conjuring and other spooky horror stuff, and then did Furious 7. That’s something Shyamalan couldn’t pull off. In that way Shyamalan is like John Carpenter, a genre director that thrives in small, personal movies but can’t seem to break through with a blockbuster.
As far as favorites go it’s a boring choice, and it may be just because The Visit is still too fresh in my mind, but I think Unbreakable is his best film simply because of the context. He was still on point and in the middle of making high-minded genre movies that clicked in all the right ways. The Visit at least functions as a sufficiently bonkers reset. The question now will be what he does next. Hopefully it’s something very cheap and very scary.
WCW: As much as I kind of hate it, Unbreakable would be my second choice. It creates a very distinct mood; it feels like the work of someone who was on the verge of being a great voice. I very much agree with your hopes for what’s next. M. Night and Blumhouse could be a match made in heaven. Go see The Visit, reader!