D: M. Night Shyamalan / 94m
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger
If you’re M. Night Shyamalan, and your career has become known more for the disappointing movies you’ve made rather than the global box office success of your third feature, then what do you do? Do you plug away at the kind of movies you like to make, where there’s a twist in the tail every time, or do you try something different? And what do you do if “different” still doesn’t work?
Well, if you are M. Night Shyamalan, then you keep coming back to the kind of movie that brought you international fame and fortune in the first place. You keep tweeking the idea to be sure, but in the end it’s the same mystery set up with a twist at the end designed to make viewers gasp, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!” The only problem with that approach though, is that viewers will be expecting the twist and trying to work it out from the word go. The beauty of The Sixth Sense (1999) was that it was a movie with so little fanfare that when the truth about Bruce Willis’s character was revealed, audiences were properly surprised. But now, audiences are that much more savvy, and getting something past them like that is even more difficult.
But Shyamalan is a trier, and he certainly doesn’t give up easily. And so we have The Visit, his latest venture as writer/director, and a movie that is two parts Tales from the Crypt and one part The Twilight Zone. The set up is pretty simple: single mom (Hahn) decides to send her two young children – Becca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) – to visit their grandparents for the first time. Mom is estranged from her parents, but feels it will be good for her kids to meet them and build a relationship with them. Becca decides to film the trip and their stay, both as a record of the occasion and as part of a larger school project.
When they arrive at their grandparents’ place, they find Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie) to be a pleasant, welcoming couple. However, it’s not long before they begin to realise that Nana and Pop-Pop might have a few issues related to their age. Nana exhibits strange behaviour during the night, from wandering (apparently) aimlessly through the house to scratching at the wall outside their room – and without any clothes on either. But Pop-Pop explains that Nana isn’t too well, and Becca and Tyler sympathise and continue their stay – even after they play hide and seek under the house and find Nana under there with them and chasing them on all fours.
But Pop-Pop also exhibits some strange behaviour. He keeps going out to the shed each day and depositing a package there. Tyler investigates and finds that Pop-Pop has his own problems. And still the children continue their stay, even as they begin to suspect that good old Nana and Pop-Pop might not be in the best of mental and/or physical health. FaceTime calls with their mom don’t help, as she’s focused on the holiday she’s enjoying with her new man. But as the week of their stay progresses, events become more unnerving and both Becca and Tyler begin to look forward to going home, just as Nana and Pop-Pop begin to think it might be a good idea if they stayed longer.
Let’s get the twist out of the way. It comes along with roughly fifteen minutes to go, and for seasoned veterans of this kind of movie, will have been guessed a long time before then. It’s not a particularly difficult twist to work out – Shyamalan provides enough clues – and when it comes it’s done in a suitably effective way. But while some viewers may feel it’s an unnecessary turn of events, advance knowledge actually doesn’t make the movie any less effective (as far as that goes). What it does do though is give Shyamalan the chance to ramp up the tension of the last ten minutes and inject some much needed energy.
The Visit lives or dies by how convincing the children’s reaction to their grandparents’ behaviour is. Today, with children being a lot more aware of the wider world around them, and of what is and isn’t right, being holed up with a couple of elderly people who exhibit bizarre behaviour that might lead to their being violent, doesn’t seem like something that two kids of Tyler and Becca’s intelligence would endure (even for their mom’s sake). But they do, and in reality we wouldn’t have a movie if they didn’t, but equally, in reality they would have been out of there the moment they saw Nana scratching at the walls in the all-together. Shyamalan is clever enough to invoke the sympathy card but when Becca surprises Pop-Pop “cleaning” his rifle, they still opt to wait out the week.
Suspension of disbelief is pretty much a standard requirement for horror thrillers, and The Visit requires it just as much as any other, similar movie. But here the basic set up is so banal, so bland, that when events become disturbing and threatening, Shyamalan can’t come up with a convincing reason for the kids to stay. And he’s not helped by the decision to use the found footage approach, which leads to several moments where suspension of disbelief is not only required but stretched to its limits (just how many times can a camera be dropped/left in exactly the right place to record things?).
But while the movie’s more sinister elements aren’t entirely successful, with several references to Grimm’s Fairy Tales added to the mix, where Shyamalan does succeed is with his cast. DeJonge and Oxenbould are terrific as the children, siblings who fight and argue with each other all the time but who are clearly devoted to each other at the same time. Becca is a budding cineaste and talks about movie making as if she were an auteur; DeJonge captures the child’s need to feel and be treated like an adult with surprising precision. Tyler’s wannabe rapper feels like a way for him to deal with not having a father, and Oxenbould gives Tyler a wonderful braggadocio in these moments (even if his rapping is awful). As Nana and Pop-Pop, Dunagan and McRobbie don’t overplay their “issues” and prove remarkably effective at providing the chills beneath the sweetness of the couple’s exterior affability.
Made on a small budget but with a degree of creativity that makes the movie a lot more entertaining than some of Shyamalan’s other movies – The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) to name but two – The Visit still doesn’t quite mean a return to the early form Shyamalan showed with The Sixth Sense. But it’s a better found footage movie than most, tells its story with a refreshing lack of gimmicks, and might just be a sign that Shyamalan is turning the corner and starting to make good movies again.
Rating: 6/10 – not as eerie or as frightening as its writer/director may have wanted, The Visit is nevertheless a worthwhile entry in the found footage genre (even if it’s not technically “found” footage); good performances bolster a script that doesn’t fulfill its own potential, but most viewers will find the movie an okay watch that doesn’t insult them too much of the time, or deliberately.