M. Night Shyamalan’s Eerie Found Footage Horror Movie Deserves Another Look

Feb 10, 2024

The Big Picture

M. Night Shyamalan’s
The Visit
turns the found footage genre on its head, creating a lean and scary film that subverts expectations.
The film’s scares come from simplicity and a focus on character, rather than relying on jump scares and gore.
The grounded mood and naturalistic moments in
The Visit
make it a more organic and substantive horror film, with believable performances and refined camerawork.

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent thriller, last year’s Knock at the Cabin, has prompted claims of the renowned-then-maligned filmmaker’s return to form. However, in actuality, Cabin is a continuation of form, a comeback as slow-burn as his mysteries and rooted in one of Shyamalan’s lesser-known works, The Visit. Despite The Visit’s concept (an amateur filmmaker documents a week-long stay with her grandparents), Shyamalan refuses to classify his eleventh feature film with the “found footage” label. “I make the big distinction between documentaries and found footage,” he told Digital Spy in 2015. “Documentary has cinematic intent, beauty, art, aesthetics. Found footage is really haphazard and there’s no cinematic intent behind it, it’s just capturing something. However, whether Shyamalan likes it or not, his detachment from the style is precisely why The Visit is one of the era’s more successful found footage offerings. He turned the genre on its head, shook its contents around, then dissected the remains to suit his needs. As The Visit is currently one of Max’s most-watched movies, it’s time we dissect what makes Shyamalan’s (sorry, but there is no other way to describe it) found footage horror film so effective.

The Visit Two siblings become increasingly frightened by their grandparents’ disturbing behavior while visiting them on vacation.Release Date September 10, 2015 Director M. Night Shyamalan Runtime 94 Writers M. Night Shyamalan

Most of The Blair Witch Project (the first film to popularise found footage movies) and Paranormal Activity’s (the movie that launched the current-day found footage craze) approximately one billion knock-offs were forgettable because they failed to understand either film’s central appeal. The terror of found footage doesn’t stem from lazy jump scares and wild gore, but from simplicity; from crafting a mood from the ground up and stretching the resulting tension to the absolute snapping point. Those factors are Shyamalan’s stylistic calling card. And for all of his impressive ideas, the director’s at his best narratively when he lasers in on individual characters with pinpoint efficiency: a young boy reckoning with death (The Sixth Sense), a confused adult discovering his purpose (Unbreakable), a young love story (The Village), a family’s fragile faith during the end of the world (Signs and Knock at the Cabin). These emotional journeys are universal and recognizable, and Shyamalan’s depictions of them are achingly empathetic. He flourishes within a restricted worldview where the mystical elements contribute to the universe without distracting from its humanist themes.

The Visit, likewise, is a lean, mean film devoid of extraneous noise. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two young teenagers, spend a week with the estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) they’ve never met. Becca wants to become a filmmaker, so she documents their stay with Nana and Pop-Pop. As the week progresses, Nana and Pop-Pop act oddly from time to time, but they explain away every incident as a symptom of their failing mental and physical health — until the only explanation left, the only true one, is unthinkably horrifying.

‘The Visit’ Keeps the Scares Simple, Which Makes it More Frightening

Although the film qualifies as Shyamalan’s first explicit attempt at horror (something the writer-director credits to how tricky it was to find the film’s tone in the editing room), his signature twist is small and appropriately self-contained. The threat emerges not from supernatural forces but from the safest of familial areas. Yes, some elderly individuals can seem eccentric at times, but those actions stem from mental health conditions that are, by and large, innocuous and harmless. Society associates grandparents with the concept of comfort, softness, and love; upending this normally unquestioned safety is frightening on a profound level. And few characters are more helpless than children, especially when they’re separated from loving parents. Becca and Tyler are intelligent and talented, but there’s no amount of emotional maturity in the world that can prepare a sheltered, innocent child to defend themselves against danger. Watching this nightmare scenario unfold is equally terrifying for parents and children of any age.

Related Clint Eastwood & Paul Newman Turned Down Starring in This M. Night Shyamalan Film This thriller would have been a very different film had casting choices worked out the first time.

Unlike horror films where the characters are stock vehicles who exist just to endure awful things, The Visit thrives in naturalistic moments. Family phrases that have a history behind them, Tyler unpacking his suitcase, Becca scoring the bigger guest bed through rock-paper-scissors, and Tyler’s propensity for replacing curse words with the names of female pop singers. Despite a stripped-down plot, The Visit feels more organic and substantive than its fellow contemporaries. Casting lesser-known actors in the main roles helps this layer of believability, especially given Shyamalan’s knack for eliciting sophisticated performances from child actors. The director’s past collaborators included the biggest stars of his day, but from a 2023 perspective, Kathryn Hahn as Loretta, the children’s mother, is the only recognizable performer (unless you loved Father Lantom in Netflix’s Daredevil series).

The Kids in ‘The Visit’ Act Like Real Kids

Another testament to The Visit’s grounded mood is Becca’s interest in film. In terms of representation, it’s lovely to see a teenage girl passionately explaining mise-en-scene, but her commitment to the art form explains why the camerawork is so refined. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (behind the camera on such prestigious films as The Wrestler and Creed) makes fine use of canted angles to suggest cramped spaces and isn’t afraid to frame a shot awkwardly when the situation calls for it. And for a change of pace, Alberti cleverly replicates the classic shot-reverse-shot technique without compromising the found footage format by having Becca use her secondary camera to film herself simultaneously alongside her subject. There are even “behind the scenes” moments normally cut from professional documentaries, such as Becca telling Tyler to act naturally or calming her mother’s on-camera nerves. The aspiring director wants to represent the truth of their stay, the beautiful and the ugly, as well as give Loretta some closure.

And the excuses for why characters investigate a creepy noise or leave their cameras running? Well, they’re kids. Shyamalan has taken the time to establish them as such, and children psych themselves up, dare one another, and forget to turn the camera off. A regular plot hole (“just leave the house!”) isn’t one, because teenagers will still stick their fingers in a wall socket.

With all of this subversion said, Shyamalan knows a classic scare when he sees one. Long takes escalate tension, especially ones cloaked in heavy shadows with limited lighting and lacking any musical score. Odd sounds do the same, especially when diegetic music unexpectedly shatters the normalcy of a house at midnight. And sometimes, the scariest sight is best left unseen. The mental imagery that audiences can concoct is far scarier than any CGI creature invented by Hollywood. Shyamalan may find found footage contentious, but his experienced hand applies its best elements to maximum effect in The Visit. All artists know that stepping outside of one’s comfort zone sometimes produces the best work; accordingly, “M. Night Shyamalan + found footage” is a host of untapped potential.

The Visit is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

Watch on Max

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