Dear M. Night Shyamalan,
Let’s have a little talk.
I like your stuff. Like most people I was blown away by The Sixth Sense and I’ve seen every one of your films since then. Yes, even The Last Airbender. Speaking of which, I think you still owe the world an apology for that one. But Unbreakable was really good, and it was a unique superhero movie long before Robert Downey Jr. snarked his way into an Iron Man suit. People are divided on Signs but I defend it because I enjoyed the impending dread and tense climax. We get into rough territory with The Village. Lady in the Water was admirable for just how…different it was, even if it fell flat. It’s a sharp decline from there buddy. On the upside, The Happening has Marky Mark emoting with a plastic fern, that’s gotta count for something. And After Earth…was the accent Will Smith’s idea? Had to be.
Look, the point is Mr. Shyamalan… Can I call you M? Look, the point is M that I’ve followed your work even through the rough patches because I know you have a strong vision and a knack for crafting the types of movies that get me interested. Now we have The Visit and I dare say you may have gotten your groove back. Ok, you leaned on the gimmick of it a being a “found footage” movie and I don’t think it really benefits from that trope much. It gives you an excuse to keep the scary thing just out of frame when you want to but this story could have been told just as effectively traditionally. However, the movie itself is still engaging and tense.
First of all, where did you find those two kids? Those Aussies are spectacular in this movie. They’re affable and immediately endearing without ever being annoying. I believe them as siblings, I believe their motivations, and they sell me on the emotions of every scene. The central victims of a horror movie need to be likeable in the beginning and convincingly terrified later when the S hits the F. That can be hard enough with established actors and you got a solid performance out of these two young people. The movie rides on them and they carry it admirably. Great work there.
Now here is an interesting point. Do you think old people are scary, M? Because a lot of the scares and dread in the first half or so of the movie are built on the foundation that the elderly inherently have issues that others may find disturbing, whether those be problems with their body or their mental faculties. I admit, some of things I saw on screen were unsettling, but I don’t know how often I was ever really scared. Now that’s just me, others may react differently to the problems that arise when you get older. Perhaps it forces us to look mortality in the face, to confront the dark truth that our frail shells are woefully temporary and will, with crushing inevitability, betray us as they wither and break down. (Did I mention it’s my birthday today?) For me though, I mostly just saw an elderly couple with unfortunate problems that weren’t used to having house guests. Taken at face value I wasn’t really scared during the first half of the movie.
Of course, this is a horror movie, and it’s a horror movie directed by you. You know that, I know that, and you know that I know that. So despite the creepy old people writing off their creepiness as just by products of them being old, I DO feel a growing sense of worry over what’s REALLY going on. And that’s where you succeed; in planting doubt and keeping the audience guessing. Are the grandparents telling the truth? Are they hiding something? Are the kids overreacting? Is it all taking place inside a snowglobe as part of an autistic boy’s imagination? There is a mystery here that keeps me engaged even when the scares might not be hitting me as hard as I would hope. And you sly dog, you play with our expectations well. You know the audience expects a certain kind of TWIST from you and you use that to flip the script in subtle ways. Once we hit the final act and in classic horror movie fashion everything goes to hell, the movie is tense, exciting, and a thrill to watch.
So, M, where does that leave us? Overall, The Visit wasn’t great, but it was really good. It was fun to watch, but what it really does is make me hope that you’re back in the saddle. You took a break from your own stories to direct other people’s movies. I’m glad to see you’re back to bringing us your vision and I’m looking forward to what’s next.
Just, uh…no more Will Smith or running away from the wind, ok?