Brow Beat

In Praise of M. Night Shyamalan, Comedian

Still from The Visit
The Visit shows we don’t give M. Night Shyamalan enough credit for being intentionally funny.

Still from the trailer

The last few years have been lonely ones for the M. Night Shyamalan apologist. Wearied defenders of Signs and The Village have seen the writer-director languish in a brutal blockbuster rut with The Last Airbender and After Earth. Even The Happening, a chiller that should have been right in his wheelhouse, was widely ridiculed. By the time the onetime brand-name filmmaker began to endure searching articles about why studios were hiding his name from his own movie’s promotional materials, the creative fall of the former next Spielberg seemed complete.

Now, dormant loyalists may have reason to regroup. Earlier this summer, Wayward Pines, the series Shyamalan produced and piloted for Fox, earned some critical appreciation and talk of a second season. And now there is The Visit, Shyamalan’s new found-footage movie about a brother and sister who go to grandmother’s house only to find that Nana and Pop Pop have prepared far more than pudding and pumpkin pie. Not only did Universal put Shyamalan’s name on the trailer, the studio granted a New York Times reporter access to stoke anticipation after the movie got a big response at early screenings, sparking talk of a “surprise cinematic comeback.”

The real surprise of The Visit is that it was a comedy the entire time—and this time, the humor is intentional. The movie’s scrappy horror elements are more unnerving than scary, and they mostly serve to enhance its grim sense of humor, not the other way around. Shyamalan has gleeful fun subjecting the kids to the worst accommodations their hosts have to offer, from a knife-wielding grandma to several run-ins with dirty adult diapers. The zany mischief is enough to make you wonder if his real gift as a filmmaker has been in queasy humor all along.  

Shyamalan actually began his career not in genre fare but in comedy, albeit in a much different mode. In Praying With Anger, his fish-out-of-water debut from 1992, he cast himself as a young Indian-American man who goes back to the motherland. He followed it up with Wide Awake in 1998, a coming-of-age comedy that featured, among others, Rosie O’Donnell as a jocular nun. The movies preview the spiritual hokum and sentimentality that even his fans acknowledge cost his later films some of their bite, but they also suggest a young director whose storytelling impulses leaned more toward levity than austere suspense.

But it was with Shyamalan’s next movie, The Sixth Sense, that he became a name brand. Only a year after the release of Wide Awake, the writer-director suddenly abandoned his lighthearted roots to become known as a marquee director of solemn, humorless thrillers with last-act twists. Unbreakable, released in 2000, didn’t do much to disabuse audiences of this notion.

Unbreakable—despite mostly positive reviews—made only one-third of what The Sixth Sense did in U.S. theaters, so Shyamalan decided to mix it up. A crowd-pleaser at heart, he loosened up with 2002’s Signs, lacing the movie with memorably loopy humor. There’s the butch Pennsylvanian sheriff (Cherry Jones) who drawls about Scandinavian high jumpers. There’s the drug-store clerk who can’t stop confessing her sins to Mel Gibson’s lapsed priest. There’s the wriggly, star-making turn from a young Abigail Breslin. But the movie’s real gem is Joaquin Phoenix’s Merrill, a burnout who becomes obsessed with the possibility of an alien invasion. Merrill twists perfect tin-foil hats on his head along with his niece and nephew, and in a neat trick, Shyamalan gets both the biggest laugh and jump scare of his career out of the same scene: Merrill watching eerie TV footage from a Brazilian birthday party (“Move, children! Vámonos!”).

Even when Shyamalan put back on his serious face for The Village, his (ahem) underrated tale of a 19th-century village shrouded in fear, we still saw fine comedic set pieces amid all the brooding and period trappings. Look, here, how he manages to get a laugh out of single, well-timed cut:

After that movie earned the scorn of critics and some audiences alike, the writer-director showed in Lady in the Water that his wounded ego could also fight with a sense of humor. The movie has some charming situational comedy, thanks to a game Paul Giamatti performance, but it also reveals some gritted teeth. Consider the infamous “comedic” sequence in which Shyamalan literally throws a film critic to the dogs:

And that brings us to The Happening, a comedy to everyone except perhaps Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. I will stage my defense of this misunderstood movie at a later date, but it seems clear that Shyamalan is in on the joke here. Just check out the scene below, where Wahlberg tries to make friends with a tree. This is funny, and it means to be. The joke, as the punchline reveals, is on Wahlberg.

Now, after The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan seems to have shed all pretense with The Visit. It feels like the work of a very different filmmaker. He may import some of his old habits—stationary shots at harsh angles, a twist ending—but the movie’s giddy, caustic energy is all new. If his earlier humor had a warm, goofball sensibility, here he goes full-on prankster, which is clear from the first (but not last) glimpse of granny’s naked bottom. He undercuts every would-be horror set piece with a heavy dose of sneering humor, driven by unhinged cackles from Nana and blithe reassurances from Pop Pop that all will be fine—as long as the kids stay in their bedroom after 9:30. Shyamalan has long been pegged as a classist, but now he has thrown in with sicko horror-comedy godfathers like Sam Raimi and Joe Dante.

The Visit does have its share of regrettable jokes (there is a rapping preteen boy), but Shyamalan is having so much fun you can almost hear him giggling behind the camera. At my screening, the audience was right there with him. So when the movie reached its treacly final scene—another old habit—I chose instead to think back to its nastiest gross-out gag. In an echo of the movie critic Shyamalan once sacrificed in Lady in the Water, a character smashes a dirty diaper toward the camera, a seeming gesture to the audience: This is the filth you deserve. Really, it’s the filth Shyamalan was destined to give us all along.