Who saw this coming? The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan's witty, crowd-jolting spook house of an 11th feature, is its writer/director's best movie since the tail-end of the last Clinton era. And it's the best studio horror flick in recent years, combining the but-what's-in-those-shadows? immersion of The Conjuring, James Wan's basement-wandering simulator, with the crack scripting and meta-cinematic surprises of Shyamalan's best early films. Plus jokes, a rapping white preteen boy and a gross-out gag so potent that the crowd I saw this with straight-up screamed. One woman yelled that just watching it, she needed to wash her face.
The feeling, throughout, is not that of a once-promising talent attempting a comeback. It's that of a champ at play. Most startling of all: He's beating younger players at their own game. The Visit is yet another cheap-o found-footage scare picture, but one crafted with a rigor and intelligence too rarely applied to the genre. Shyamalan isn't slumming. He sources in character the origin of each shot, but he's not surrendering the frame to amateurs. Even when the kids purporting to carry the camera flop onto a bed, the composition remains clear and inventive, even clever, with any individual setup revealing new dimensions the longer we look. At the film's best, Shyamalan and director of photography Maryse Alberti rig together several of those setups without a cut, most memorably in a mid-movie lulu that serves as a mini-lesson in horror history: A familiar Paranormal Activity-style fixed-position surveillance shot becomes, as we cower, a kinetic villain's-eye p.o.v. shot right out of last generation's Halloween, complete with a wicked blade from the kitchen.
Shyamalan even offers a satisfying answer to the question that can undo the logic of almost every found-footage film: If this footage is meant to be our only surviving document of fantastic goings-on, why did whoever edited it together bother to include all that un-fantastic character business in the first reels? For once, we actually know who the in-story editor is, and for once, it makes sense that the thriller the heroes accidentally shot would be edited into a feature-length shocker.
The premise is simple yet edged with fable and nightmare. Two kids get packed off by their overworked single mom to spend a week with the grandparents they've never met. Nana and Pop-Pop seem eccentric, at first, and they warn the children that bedtime on the rural Pennsylvania farm is 9:30 p.m. The kids—brainy filmmaker-in-training Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and self-consciously un-brainy prepubescent rapper boy Tyler (Ed Oxenbould)—fail to keep to their bedroom and, naturally, stumble through dark hallways into jump-scare trouble. Something is off with the grandparents, especially at night, when the house rocks with strange knockings. Shyamalan is quick to get to what audiences consider the good stuff: an ill-advised game of hide-and-seek underneath a low-to-the-ground porch; a trip into the shed when Pop-Pop's not looking. Even in the sunny kitchen, Nana proves creepy, urging her granddaughter to help clean out the oven by climbing all the way inside. These scenes are scary-fun rather than scary-sadistic, the kind in which you laugh a little in anticipation of what the movie will spring next.
What it springs I won't spoil, except to say it's the most I've laughed at a Shyamalan film since The Happening—but this time, that laughter was on his terms. For the first time in years, Shyamalan proves a shrewd and commanding filmmaker, goosing the audience to feel just what he wants us to. (Rebecca, a quick study of movie technique, even announces aloud that she would like to do what the director prides himself on: stirring emotion from an audience without making us aware of the effort to do so.) Again, Shyamalan proves himself adept with child actors, guiding his leads to winning, likable, transparent performances—these kids never seem to strain for effect. Oxenbould clowns memorably, lampooning the scare scenes just moments after we've recovered, even making his rap shtick funny. DeJonge shoulders scenes freighted with smarty-pants cuteness: A book-learned budding director, she has to chatter about mise-en-scène in a film that often exemplifies the concept. And the grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, smartly modulate from scene to scene, coming off as apple-pie sweet, then piercingly senile, then imposingly mad. These actors are given the highest grade of bunk to play, and they play it—and, really, that's the triumph of this strange, funny, nasty little thriller. Rather than try to live up to the expectations of those existential beauties The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan is playing: with form, with genre, with perspective, with us. The twist, this time, is that he's having a ball—and you probably will, too.