When you mention the name M. Night Shyamalan*, people have several varying reaction: everybody remembers those famous words, “I see dead people.” Or they fondly think “Swing away, Merrill.” Others recoil as they consider The Village, The Happening, The Lady in the Water (which I still don’t think is a terrible movie, but hey I am just one person) or any of his recent films from After Earth to Avatar. Most people would probably say, “Oh he’s the twist guy right? The one that thought he could be Hitchcock?” Whatever the case, whatever the thoughts or memories, no one would say that M. Night is a still a relevant Hollywood director, or even a worthy talking point. I am here to not only say that he is in fact still very much a relevant director, I also think we are about to see a resurgence and reinvigoration of his career.
We recently published a positive review of The Visit. That review was more than warranted, it was brief to avoid spoilers, but I’d argue that in its brevity it did not do the film justice at all. M. Night took the found footage genre and found a way to breathe new life into it. Add that with the recent Mark Duplass starring Creep, Eduardo Sanchez’s Exists and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek and I am hopeful that found footage might even stop being a gimmick and become a serious medium for telling a story, but I am digressing here. The focus is on M. Night Shyamalan and the fact that I think, I feel, that he is back championship form. Made on a $5 million budget, The Visit is beautifully filmed, well directed and at times genuinely creepy. It is a thriller and a mystery in the vein of some of Hitchcock’s lesser films (more in line with high quality episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, maybe), which means it is still far superior to a lot of dreck that has made it’s way into theaters lately. I sat there and watched this film and remembered why I loved this director after his first three films (and yes I absolutely did and still do love Unbreakable. Totally underrated.). Here, for the first time in years, he is in total control. He moves you with these broken kids, victims of divorce, trying to make peace for their broken mother and in doing so heal themselves. He gives them, and all the characters appearing in the film, quirks and personalities and qualities that just work. Again, the film is not as strong as his early oeuvre, but you can see his confidence returning. That confidence is in full bloom at the end of the film, as he ramps up the horror and provides a startlingly, and satisfyingly, gruesome conclusion to the tale.
I also recently enjoyed Wayward Pines, a show that Shyamalan produced and directed the pilot episode of. Again I was struck by the confidence that the show exuded. Now to admit my own bias I have read the entire series by Blake Crouch and enjoyed them very much, and I was hoping the series did the books justice. Shyamalan did the series justice and more as producer, creating a show that I heard many people talking about the day after. So what gives? Why this sudden return to form? Well I think the only valid reason we can point at here is scope and budget.
Prior to The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan’s films cost between $40 -$75 million. His first three films are arguably his best, so what happened with The Village and The Happening and The Lady in the Water, where the films were panned almost universally? Scope, my dear reader, our brave auteur started to entertain bigger ideas, bigger plot twists, bigger events. Shyamalan is at his best when he is controlling a small portion of the universe. Each of his films to score highly on Rotten Tomatoes takes place in a single locale or a small isolated location, even Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense while taking place in a city limit the action to only a few locations, locations that add to the plot, instead of distracting from it. The same held true for Hitchcock himself, his best films, the ones with the most suspense, take place in a single locale or small localized setting (Rear Window, Psycho, The Rope all come to mind immediately).
Once Shyamalan started expanding his ideas to include mythologies, world spanning events, or literal heroes’ journeys, his stories started to fall apart and his unblinking eye style of shooting began to feel tedious. For me this was especially true of The Happening, a film which could have been so bad it was great but instead turned into a grating subpar steaming pile of drek (it could have also just been absolutely great, if treated with the same small scope/limited viewpoint as Signs). With The Last Airbender and After Earth, we have a similar failure to juggle plot and scope and action. The more money he was given, the more he tried to do. You can applaud him for that, but while attempting to do interesting things I feel very strongly that he lost sight of what makes him so great. Small, tense situations with great characters and an unblinking eye observing them. It’s what made each of his first three films work so well and what drives The Visit. Speaking of his latest, he takes his unblinking eye style and gives it his protagonists, a brave choice and one that could easily have made the whole endeavor campy or hokey. However, by utilizing the found footage style, Shyamalan manages to find that flair, that small, close, tense feeling that had been lacking of late. By keeping the film on an isolated farmhouse, he once again returns to his roots and focuses on crafting a character driven horror thriller. The Visit works on almost every level, and I personally hope it indicates a return to form for one of the most interesting filmmakers of the 20th century.
*When you hear his name you probably wonder how he can still be making movies after so many critical stinkers in a row, but the fact is that according to boxofficemojo.com almost every one of his films has been profitable.