Who saw this coming? The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan's witty, crowd-jolting spook-house of an eleventh 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 pre-teen 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 crafted with 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. It's scary-fun, rather than scary-sadistic.