The Visit and all the images you see in this review are owned byUniversal Pictures
Directed by M Night Shyamalan
Oh good god, we have another M Night Shyamalan movie! After the travesty of… well everything after Signs, you’d think that he’d no longer be a big name director in Hollywood. Still, people kept giving him projects and he kept making terrible movies, culminating with the utter disaster that was After Earth. It seems though that he’s finally had to step down somewhat and has now released a low budget film with barely any recognizable actors and found footage gimmick. Will getting back to basics be exactly what this filmmaker needs to get his directing chops back, or is it too late for the man who could have been one the great auteurs of our time? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Becca and Tyler (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), who are on a trip to see their grandparents. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had left things on pretty bad terms when she ran away to be with the man who would end up being the kids’ father, and she hasn’t spoken to them since then. Only recently did they get back in contact with their daughter and would like to have their grandchildren come visit them some time. An opportunity presents itself where the mother would need someone to look after the kids for a week, so she decides to let the kids go see them. The reason for the found footage approach with this film is that Becca is a filmmaker in her own right and wants to make a documentary of their trip to their grandparents house to not only go for an Oscar, but to show the footage to her mother to help her get over whatever it was that kept her away from her parents for so long. Of course, once they get to the grandparents’ house, things slowly start to get out of hand as both of them seem to exhibit strange and occasionally dangerous behaviors. Are these two the victims of some sort of degenerative neurological disease, or is there something more sinister at play?
I am genuinely surprised that this turned out to be a pretty decent horror film. I mean sure, it’s nothing spectacular or up to Shyamalan’s level when he was at his peak, but if we’re talking about found footage horror films this might just be one of the better ones (right up there with The Last Exorcism for me). So what is it about this film that works so well? On a surface level, I think M Night has made a very tight horror film with a near flawless understanding of the Tension Release Cycle. This movie isn’t all that scary (it’s actually downright laughable for most of its runtime), but the way he’s able to set up shots and control the atmosphere means that even though you know what’s gonna jump out is most likely going to be silly rather than scary, it’s still able to catch you off guard and give you a shock. It’s all in those moments before the payoff that M Night takes all the necessary care and attention to all sensory details to build the suspense and tension before giving us the payoff. More than likely though, this will lead to laughter rather than genuine shock or terror, but I think this movie is damn near genius BECAUSE it manages to be SO suspenseful at moments without needing to be scary. Sure, there are moments where it’s trying to creep you out, but most of the time you’ll just laugh at what you’re seeing on screen. The grandma (played by Deanna Dunagan) gets most of these jump scare/laugh moments than the actor playing her husband (Peter McRobbie), and she gives a brilliant performance considering what is asked of her throughout the movie (puking all over the place, running on all fours, scratching walls while naked, among other things). It only goes to show how much the actress must have invested into this role to not only play it as off kilter as she does, but also as funny and lovable.
That’s another great thing about this movie. All the actors are giving solid performances (save the mother but she’s hardly in the movie anyway) and the two characters who are ostensibly the bad guys are actually sympatric throughout. Well… that is until the end, but we’ll get to the stuff that doesn’t work later. It’s not clear throughout the movie what it is that’s wrong with the two grandparents (I was hoping for alien mind control devices embedded in their brains), but when they aren’t acting creepy or (occasionally) violent they’re actually very sweet and seem to genuinely care for their grandchildren who they’ve never had a chance to be with until now.
The kids as well do a great job even if they do have that sort of unrealistic dialogue that Shyamalan is known to write for the kids in his movie, and the gimmick genuinely works because they commit to it. The girl is always working on her footage when not actively filming, and a big aspect of this story is her trying to interview the grandparents to find out more about them and about what happened with their mother. The boy has less to do in this (he’s mostly just comic relief) but even he has moments to shine like when his obsession with germs is brought to the forefront. As a story about taking care of older members of your family, it does fall flat on its face by the end (we’ll get to that!) but during the first two thirds it does sell to the audience that these kids are terrified of these people while still having great empathy for them and trying their best to help the situation as best as they can. So overall, we have a film that takes cues from horror films (as well as liberally using the Tension Release Cycle to its utmost potential) while still managing to feel more like a bittersweet story about having to take care of people who have great difficulty taking care of themselves rather than a traditional found footage film.
So why didn’t I fall in love with this movie? Well… it all comes down to the ending. M Night’s greatest failing here was in regards to the twist he put into the movie, but oddly enough it’s because he was too restrained with what the big revelation was. I’m not going to outright spoil it here, but needless to say you might not want to read much further if you want to go in without any indication of what the ending might be. To sum up quickly, it’s a damn good film in a genre that has been overdone to death, and while M Night isn’t even close to where he was when he burst onto the scene, this is easily the best thing he’s done in a decade. The last twenty minutes of the movie are not very good and it ends up being exactly what you’d hope this movie wouldn’t become. Still, I do recommend it for the great acting, fantastic sense of pacing, and genuinely likeable characters which is too damn rare in this genre.
Okay here comes the spoiler. The big twist is that… there really isn’t one. Sure there’s something that blindsides the two kids in the movie (and probably only half the audience at most), but it doesn’t really change what this movie is or makes you reexamine the movie in any significant way. It really is just an “old people are crazy” movie that adds a heaping helping of mental illness stigmatization on top. Throughout the movie, it does walk that fine line between having atypical horror movie villains (which is commendable) and portraying an entire group of people as unhinged or dangerous (which is the opposite of commendable). I sat there REALLY hoping that whatever M Night had up his sleeve would help plant this movie firmly on the side of NOT showcasing Alzheimer’s, Schizophrenia, or any other mental illness you can apply to these characters as explanations for characters being murderous and evil, but then it does the exact opposite and I was very disappointed by this. That and the last third of the movie ends up being typical horror movie fair. Physical violence, blood shed, dead bodies, and whatever else they could throw in that completely misses the point of the first two thirds. Maybe that’s what’s going to sell this movie to horror audiences, and we do get two thirds of something you wouldn’t expect, but it’s a worse movie for having that ending. Fortunately, there is a bit of an epilogue to close out the movie which I think is quite brilliant to include. It’s not in depth or anything, but I appreciate the fact that we do get to see these characters lives after the horrific experience they encounter rather than just having their entire existence revolve around this one incident in their lives. Most horror movies only care about these characters as long as they are fodder for whatever monster is chasing after them, and I’m glad that M Night cared enough about these kids to end the movie on their terms instead of the monsters’ (whomever the monster may be).
So what can we learn from this? M Night has had an AWFUL run of films recently, but he’s always had the benefit of the doubt from me simply because he comes off as a real filmmaker rather than an uncaring hack who’s working paycheck to paycheck. Sure his last two movies definitely felt like paying gigs rather than a personal project, but even at his lowest points he can still manage to create something that’s at least worth talking about. Lady in the Water was a soul bearing exercise for someone whose ego had gotten out of control. The Last Air Bender was his attempt to prove his value as a blockbuster filmmaker. After Earth… okay, I don’t know what the fuck was going on there. Still, I always want to see what he ends up doing because he does bring something unique to the movies that he makes (good and bad) which make them stand out against whatever films are made at the time. This feels sort of like a return to form for him. He’s getting down to the basics with a smaller budget, an unknown cast, and working for a studio (Blumhouse) that’s known for giving creative leeway in exchange for modest budgets. I want to have the old M Night who made Unbreakable to actually make a return, but even with this that still seems a long way off. If he’s genuinely trying to turn a corner, then this is a decent start and I hope he continues to rediscover his strengths without once again becoming a self-obsessed blowhard. Wouldn’t THAT be a great twist?
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