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There is a curious self-entrapment to the found footage genre where in order for the viewer to be able to follow the story, the camera must be running and at least aimed on or near the action at all times, even when it’s not even plausible to believe that someone would be filming in such a situation. Being chased by horrific things while having the cognitive capacity to keep it in frame is a conceit that these films maintain in order to keep audiences informed and more importantly, scared.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s latest horror/thriller/comedy, the use of found footage is twisted into documentary style where young Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), an aspiring filmmaker, and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a hopeful hip hop rapper, spend the week at their grandparents in the country. The catch is that the children have never met their Nana and Pop Pop before since their mother left them when she was 19 after running off with her high-school teacher. That affair ended badly and she’s raising their kids on her own. It’s been 15 years since the grandparents have been part of the family and now they want to meet the children.
You may have noticed that I added “comedy” to the genre description of this movie in the above paragraph. That’s because, while many horror films add bits of humor to their plots or are categorically comedy first and then scary next, Shyamalan makes this a comedy in ways that are wholly unexpected. But it’s not funny in the traditional sense, but humorous in how he unabashedly, purposefully, and maybe a little shamefully fills the screen from beginning to end with as many tropes, nods, homages, jump scares, and cliches as he possible can. This isn’t a criticism.
Right from night one, things go a bit strangely for Becca and Tyler when they are told to stay out of the basement because of mold and to stay in their rooms after 9:30 at night. Becca breaks this curfew and discovers Nana projectile vomiting in the kitchen. The next night, she is naked in the hallway scratching at the walls. It gets worse from there. Pop Pop is equally disturbing and yet makes very plausible excuses for their behavior, which works on the children, though not for too long. All the while, Becca films, making a documentary of the experience. They are broken by chapter titles in thick blood-red letters, such as FRIDAY MORNING, which signals that whomever filmed or found this footage did some editing (which is answered at the movie’s end).
Here’s the thing. It all works. While it starts slow and admittedly a bit awkwardly as we adjust to the style, lack of music, and constant exposition, it gains a wonderful sense of urgency and dread that builds with great satisfaction. But even more fun is the charm as Shyamalan throws every trick he can think of at us, and successfully creates a bit of quality horror like a repurposed classic Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s startling effective.
Both DeLonge and Oxenbould are well cast and carry the film with some great moments of honesty that are some of the best Shyamalan has ever put to film, including a remarkable little scene where Becca discovers her little brother knows a lot more about her than even she might know, forcing her to think about a pain she hides inside. What Delonge does with this revelation is striking and could have been the plot of an entirely different movie, but works just as well here and helps us to understand what motivates her to stay behind the lens of her cameras. Also very good are the grandparents, played by Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan who are chilling but in a storybook sort of way that leaves them less like the Babadook and more like a cross between Willy Wonka and Annie Wilkes.
Of course this is an M. Night Shymalan movie, which means a twist. For Shyamalan, this must be getting to be burden, as he hasn’t exactly been setting high standards as he continues to chase the singular glory of his debut, The Sixth Sense, but here, when the inevitable twist comes, it has some shock but not the surprise perhaps intended. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. The fun of the film is the not so much the horror, but the mystery. Who are these people and what is happening? There are lots of clues throughout that help connect the dots and while some are painted broadly, it still makes for a far more thrilling and less pretentious experience than many of Shaymalan’s films, as he seems to have let go of his need for heavy-handedness and genuinely made something for the fun of it. Will it appeal to all? That’s hard to judge, as people still pine for that Sixth Sense awe, and will most likely not find that wonder here while horror aficionados might balk at the false scares. But if given the chance, the unwavering commitment to the ludicrousness story, some truly frightening moments, and lots of great modern-day fairy tale touches make this a fun time at the movies.