The Visit (2015)
For the past ten years, M. Night Shyamalan has been a figure of piñata-whacking derision, and yet the man has consistently been at work on films big and small. You would think a decade of duds would lead to Shyamalan being unable to direct more than a junior high theater production, and yet people like Will Smith were specifically seeking him out to direct inevitably terrible movies like After Earth (oh is that one bad). The association has been burned into our minds: Shyamalan and bad movies. Is it even possible for a man whose name has become a punchline to turn his career around? A low-budget lark like The Visit allows Shyamalan the freedom of risk. If he fails, he’s only made one more bad found footage horror movie in a near infinite sea of them, and the budget number isn’t one that will bankrupt his generous producers. Perhaps it’s through the benefit of low expectations cultivated over ten grievous years of filmmaking, but The Visit is a modest little thriller that has enough suspense and campy humor that it works, mostly. I walked out of the theater generally satisfied and entertained, which are two attributes that haven’t been associated with Shyamalan films since… Signs? Goodness, that was back when Mel Gibson was a box-office titan.
15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are visiting their grandparents for the first time. Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker and brings her camera along to make a movie about the five-day visit. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) live deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania (the local police force consists of one guy). Everything is warm and cozy until it’s nighttime and Pop Pop insists that, for their safety, the kids stay in their rooms after nine o’clock. The strict rules and forbidden areas of the home encourage the kids to go exploring. Their grandparents may just be more than weird and old.
The premise is deceptively simple and yet perfectly relatable and dripping with potential. I heartily enjoyed the fact that for a solid two acts, The Visit is a horror film where the horror elements are old people. Nana and Pop Pop both display fraying mental states, and Nana has an unusual trance-like state that kicks in once the sun goes down. I was expecting something supernatural or vaguely related to fairy tales to emerge to explain the overall weirdness and creepy affectations, but it never does. For most of the movie, the ravages of aging provide the scary business, and I think that’s great. Telling the story from the perspective of Becca and her camera also reinforces the cross-generational peculiarities, where the elderly and their older system of rules and way of life seem even more alien and alarming. Shyamalan, to his credit, does a fine job of coming up with suspense sequences built around his premise. Watching Becca and Tyler debate opening their bedroom door at night, especially after a series of unsettling scratching noises, is a well developed moment that revs up the audience imagination. Of course they shouldn’t open that door but boy do we want them to and discover what is going on. The performances from Dunagan and McRobbie hint at something menacing lurking below the surface but in a casual way. Nana asking Becca to literally crawl inside the oven to clean it is the kind of memorable what-the-hell moment that makes a horror thriller.
The offhand comments from the grandparents and their occasional erratic behavior are also played for laughs thanks to the camp factor of the actors. There is a clear absurdity to the scares and tension, and Shyamalan smartly embraces this. The Visit encourages you to laugh. Apparently, Shyamalan delivered three different edits of the movie: one pure comedy, one pure horror, and one a mixture of the two. The horror/comedy edit was the one released to theaters, and the film is better because of the inclusion of its offbeat humor. Without it, the movie would risk being too serious. To be fair, the movie isn’t making fun of dementia or ridiculing the elderly just because they’re out of touch. When the kids first see signs of Nana and Pop Pop getting confused, they behave very compassionately, like when Pop Pop dresses for a costume party he doesn’t know anything else about. Strangely enough, my theater was mostly populated with people over the age of 50, which made me wonder if they were duped into what kind of movie they were seeing or relished the chance to be seen as the scary boogeyman to teenagers.
Which leads me to the point of the review where I discuss the parts of The Visit that don’t work quite as well. I don’t think Shyamalan knows how to write for teenagers because Becca is far too precocious for her age (using terms like “elixir” and “mise-en-scene” as everyday vocabulary) and Tyler is just downright annoying. There are three separate incidents of Tyler free-style rapping and it’s about as successful as you would expect, though it provides me amusement thinking about Shyamalan writing free-style raps for a thirteen-year-old white kid from the suburbs. My engagement with The Visit was more tethered to a general sense of morbid curiosity than a concern for the teen characters. I would have been perfectly fine if the teens didn’t make it out alive. I knew that was never going to happen because of the PG-13 rating, which does put some limitations on just how far out there Shyamalan can go. Though it doesn’t limit a scant shot of elderly nudity used for comic purposes. There is a great reveal that leads into the third act that ups the stakes, but it also shifts the movie into a more definitive slasher territory, and a PG-13 rating is going to further limit that territory. There are plot holes (a disabled laptop Webcam; the fact that they don’t have cell phone service but can Skype with their mom) and several mysteries are short-lived and anticlimactic (What’s in the shed? Oh, it’s just soiled adult diapers – incontinence!). Like many found footage movies, the movie fails to justify or incorporate this forced narrative device. Becca is a teen with two cameras and yet she stages them so counter-intuitively. For her first meeting with her grandparents, she sets down the camera and then runs into the distance to hug them. Would it not make more sense to get a closer shot of this first meeting? The found footage structure also provides a coda that frustratingly undercuts the climax of tension and replaces it with a sentimental monologue. It makes sense as a movie-within-a-movie but it’s a poor choice to end a horror/comedy that just hit its peak with an unnecessary and tonally-unwarranted resolution meant to warm the heart.
Shyamalan has a long road ahead to atone for his cinematic sins, and while I wouldn’t call The Visit an outright success, the movie succeeds more often than it fails. I think more could have been done to subvert and push the premise further, but the limitations of the rating and the found footage structure keep the movie from getting too crazy. There are some well-drawn suspense sequences and the use of campy humor is a strong asset that allows the shortcomings to be more forgivable. It’s the best Shyamalan movie in over a decade, which is really saying everything you need to know. Who knows? Maybe the comeback starts here with a tiny horror movie with rapping kids and dirty Depends. Stranger things have happened in Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B-