For those of you who haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus lately. A lot of stuff has been happening in my offline world, such that I’ve had to put in a few more hours at work and focus a bit more on other projects. And the timing for that has been quite convenient, because the new releases these past few weeks have stunk to high heaven. Yet here’s one that’s gotten surprisingly good reviews from some of my favorite sources, and I can’t tell you how much that confuses me.
It comes to us from M. Night Shyamalan, whose imploding career is easily one of the greatest Hollywood disappointments in recent memory. After thoroughly dominating pop culture with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan followed that up with Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village, all of which are still varying degrees of controversial. Then came the outright masturbatory Lady in the Water, the laughably bad The Happening, and his stillborn “The Night Chronicles” enterprise, which began and ended when Devil landed (jelly side down) with a flop. After botching an adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” — easily one of the most beloved animated series to come out in the past twenty years — it was frankly quite pathetic to see Shyamalan’s name scrubbed from every single advertisement for After Earth. Which turned out to be one of the year’s most notorious box office bombs.
In summary, Shyamalan had gone from Spielberg’s heir to Will Smith’s bitch to no one at all. In the space of 14 years.
Yet here we are with The Visit, a film that proudly bears Shyamalan’s name on every poster and trailer for some odd reason. What’s more, this is a found footage horror film. I’ve long since sworn off found footage horror, and I’ve long since written off Shyamalan as washed up, but I need to get back in the game and I had heard that the movie was halfway decent. So let’s give the movie its day in court, shall we?
The Visit opens with Kathryn Hahn’s character, who’s mostly just called “Mom”. As a teenager, she ran away to live in New York with a much older man, against the warnings of her parents. Fifteen years later, she’s raising two kids on her own after her husband flew to Palo Alto with someone or other he met at a coffee shop. Though she’s apparently doing quite well for herself — she’s dating someone who’s taking her on a cruise for a week.
Incidentally, the film embeds a ton of product placement into all of that exposition, and I’ve removed it for your convenience. You’re welcome.
Anyway, “Mom” hasn’t spoken to her parents ever since she ran out. Until her parents find her online and try to open up a line of communication. The grandparents offer to babysit while “Mom” is away on her cruise, and she agrees at the behest of her kids. So let’s move on to them.
The elder sibling is Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a budding filmmaker who decides that she wants to make a documentary about their visit. Because of course we need some flimsy bullshit excuse for this “mockumentary” format. The younger sibling is Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), an amateur freestyle rapper who’s convinced that he’s God’s gift to women.
I know, I know. If I had any sense, I would have left the theater and demanded a refund the minute this thirteen-year-old kid improvised a rap about puberty. Which happened ten minutes in. I have no excuse for sticking around (save only for writing this review), and neither do you.
Moving on to the grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop are respectively played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie. The visit starts out well enough, until night falls and things get weird. I’m loathe to go into any more detail than that, because it would mean spoiling quite a few scares.
There’s a kernel of a good idea in here. There are so many age-related conditions that decay the body and mind, such that older people may not have any knowledge or control over what they’re doing. As such, an old person acting strangely could be something entirely innocent, something terribly sinister, or possibly an innocent person unknowingly doing something sinister. It’s an ambiguity that could potentially make for some fantastic horror.
Another very prominent theme is forgiveness, which is elegantly used to tie the grandparents (who were left by their daughter) with the kids (who were left by their father). I was also impressed by a scene in which Becca tries to broach a delicate subject by framing it as a story. It speaks to our need for fiction, using it as a safe way to explore concepts and ideas that may be too harsh to face in the real world. Fascinating stuff, and very cleverly presented.
That said, a lot of the film’s strengths stem from the cast, which is wonderful across the board. Hahn brings a bright sort of screen presence, which makes for a nurturing mother figure who’s instantly likeable. McRobbie and Dunagan also turn in fine work, perfectly straddling that line between creepy and nice.
But of course, it’s young DeJonge and Oxenbould who really make this film work. Even when the kids are at their worst (Becca’s know-it-all demeanor and Tyler’s faux-gangster act get very old very quickly), the actors are always just sympathetic enough that I didn’t actively wish them dead. It helps a lot that the characters go into some very dark places with regards to their family history, such that the actors can shore up some inner pain for us to understand and relate with. What’s more, the interplay between these two characters was absolutely spot-on. The two siblings get on each other’s nerves and trade all sorts of verbal jabs, but there’s never any doubt that they love each other when all is said and done.
All of that aside, let’s talk about what the movie does wrong.
To start with, the writing is laughably inconsistent with regards to its own rules. We learn, for example, that Tyler is a germaphobe. It’s something that comes and goes, and it was absolutely nowhere to be seen when Tyler was playing hide-and-seek with Becca while crawling around on his hands and knees underneath the house. What the fuck?
Another example: Because of plot convenience, Becca and Tyler can’t get any cell reception at the house. Yet they’re perfectly capable of chatting with their mom on Skype anytime they like, with crystal clarity and zero lag. Again, what the fuck?
That said, it must be remembered that this is a found footage horror movie. As it is, the film already has to bend over and back on itself a dozen times trying to get the conceit to work at all. And it’s not worth the effort. The shaky-cam is done in such a way that it obscures the action and the scares, instead of making them more effective. Between the diminished scares and the strained plot, the film as a whole is actively hindered by the found footage conceit and would have been better off without it.
But perhaps not much better. While the chase scenes and action scenes were ruined by the shaky-cam, too many other scares were ruined by characters acting stupidly. We’ve all shouted at horror movie characters for not kicking out a window, not fighting back, not running when they had the chance, etc. But this has to be the first time I’ve ever yelled at a character for knowingly crawling into a goddamn oven. Then we have the jump scares, all of which are predictable enough to set your watch to. All we’re left with after that are a precious few decent scares, but not enough that I’d call it a worthwhile horror film.
The Visit may be a step up for M. Night Shyamalan, but considering the depths he’s sunken to before, that’s not saying much. The cast is uniformly wonderful and the premise might have been developed into something decent, if only this wasn’t a textbook example of “found footage” done wrong. The scares aren’t effective enough to make for a halfway decent horror flick, and the writing is woefully deficient in places. But in spite of that, there are a few emotionally resonant ideas in this film, and I latched onto the characters just enough that I was invested in what happened to them. It all evens out to a movie that’s not really good enough or bad enough that I’ll remember anything about it tomorrow.
If you were already inclined not to see this movie, you may safely skip over it with the knowledge that you’re not missing anything. But if you were already interested, I’d strongly advise you to wait for a second-run or a rental. This is not a movie worth paying full price for.