The Visit looks like an easy movie to make fun of. It’s got an inherently creepy premise that could easily teter over into unintentional comedy in the wrong director’s hands. One need only take a look at the trailers to see what I’m talking about. Any movie that treats an old lady screaming ‘YAHTZEE’ into the camera as a selling point for audiences has got it’s head firmly up its ass. And with Mr. M. Night Shyamalan as the writer/director, I thought this was all but guaranteed to be the ‘so bad it’s good’ movie of the year. Surprisingly though, The Visit is not that movie. It’s just good. Very good actually. It’s funny, it’s creepy, it’s well acted, and it has a terrifically suspenseful climax. It’s far from a great movie but it is a sure sign that Shyamalan is learning from his mistakes and recognizing what his strengths are. He’s not back on the team of A-list directors yet but it seems he’s finally ready to get up off the bench.
Before walking into this movie, I made an observation to a friend that Shyamalan was like the Adam Sandler of movie directors. Everyone remembers his first three films fondly while acknowledging that the rest of his work is total horseshit. One can’t talk about how awful The Happening or The Last Airbender are without bringing up how good The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are. The Visit–which certainly has its problems and we’ll get to those–is much closer to Shyamalan’s earlier work. The Sixth Sense had it’s share of spooky set pieces but was mostly focused on it’s three main characters. Unbreakable was an intimate examination of the relationship between hero and villain and Signs was a tight-knit family drama masquerading as an alien invasion thriller. Shyamalan works best on a small canvas. It’s when he tries to add in special effects, extra characters, cartoonishly gory scenes (that fucking zoo attack from The Happening), and ham-fisted social messages (ALL of The Village) that he runs into trouble. The Visit is scaled back. It presents us with four main characters, traps them in a house, and gets moving. It may be sort of a slight film for Shyamalan but I think that’s the type of movie he needed to make after trying and failing to make a career as a director of Hollywood Blockbusters.
The film opens with a mother (Kathryn Hahn) explaining on camera to her two children why she has a troubled relationship with her parents. It’s an old story. She met a guy young, got pregnant, they advised her against it, she ran off, raised two kids with the man, and the bastard left her anyway. She hasn’t spoken to her parents in years. But they’ve reached out to her cuz they want to get a chance to know their grandchildren. Both kids, 15 year old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 12 year old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are open to the idea. Becca, a budding film student, wants to make a documentary about their experience and maybe use her project as a way to provide some closure for her mother. Mom hasn’t had a vacation in forever and could use a break. So off to grandmother’s house they go!
The grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem nice enough at first but it’s not long before weird shit starts to happen. Becca observes Nana sleep-walking while throwing up and Pop-Pop warns the kids to never go in the basement and to never leave their room after 9:30. Then there’s the shed Pop-Pop keeps going out to. Tyler asks what he’s doing in there but the man does not respond. Becca tries to interview Nana on camera but the woman becomes withdrawn and even hits herself when Becca has the nerve to ask about her mother. Tyler wants to leave immediately but Becca insists they’re just weird because they’re old.
The set up works right away because Shyamalan understands two simple facts: (1) when you’re a kid, old people are fucking scary. They smell strange, they have odd sleeping patterns, and they regard you with a mix of apprehension and wariness. As a kid, you don’t realize that you look at them in much the same way. Stephen King’s brilliant short story, Gramma, deals with this very same subject and was made into an extremely effective 80’s Twilight Zone episode. Watch it here. Both stories understand the gap between the old and the young and use it to create scenes of real terror and humor. Which brings us to the next fact: (2) the weird shit old people do is sometimes very funny. It may be horrifying on paper to read a scene in which a boy opens his bedroom door to find his naked grandmother howling and clawing at the walls but to actually see such a thing occur? It’s friggin hysterical. Many of the ‘scary’ moments featured in the trailers for The Visit look absurd or preposterous and they are. But guess what? The movie knows they’re absurd and preposterous. Unlike The Happening, where everything was so serious and deadpan despite the movie being about goddamn trees killing people, The Visit wheres it’s silliness on it’s sleeve. And that’s refreshing.
What isn’t so refreshing is the found footage angle. The entire story is told through the lens of Becca’s camera and there were indeed many moments where that element took me right out of the movie. There were too many scenes where I sat there saying, ‘why would you put the camera there?’ or ‘why don’t you shut it off?’ or ‘how’d you get that perfect shot?’ or ‘who is editing this and who the hell added in those red subtitles?’. Directors need to realize that the found footage motif has NEVER made a movie better. Good found footage movies work in spite of the device not because of it. It makes perfect sense that Becca would want to film a documentary about meeting her grandparents for the first time (though, in early scenes, she does seem to know too much about film composition, almost as if she were an older director’s idea of a teenager interested in film instead of an actual teenager interested in film) but it does not make sense for the whole movie to be shot in that style. You can film scenes from her camera’s perspective when necessary–such as the chilling and funny sequence where she hides the camera to spy on her Nana at night–and shoot the movie normally in other scenes. To this day, only one movie (the horror masterpiece Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon) has ever realized this. It’s a shame that Shyamalan was bogged down by this technique that nobody cares for anyway. Had he dumped it or only utilized it for certain scenes, he may have had a masterpiece on his hands.
There are other problems bogging the movie down though. It takes awhile for us to warm up to Becca and Tyler. DeJonge and Oxenbould are naturally gifted actors but their characters feel forced for the first half hour or so. Becca is too talented with her camera to ring true and Tyler seems more like comic relief than an actual character. He likes to rap and he comes up with the idea of using celebrity names as curse words (“I stubbed my toe, Shakira!”), which seems more like an excuse to nab a PG-13 rating than a character choice. However, both young actors are so good that they wore me down after a while. Tyler’s raps are eventually used to great comic effect and there’s a scene where the two kids interview each other and talk about their long lost father that is so honest and heartfelt it almost felt like it belonged in a different movie.
Which is another problem. Shyamalan’s best movies have an emotional core that takes center stage around the supernatural elements. There is a core present in The Visit too but Shyamalan doesn’t earn it the way he did in earlier films. The movie works best as a quirky thriller. When it tries to bring in real emotions, it struggles a bit. Not because those scenes are forced or badly written but simply because there’s not enough of them for us to be fully invested. And that makes me wonder if that’s due to Shyamalan or to producer Jason Blum. Blum is the go-to producer of horror films for Hollywood right now. His name is attached to string of financial successes, such as Insidious, Sinister, and Paranormal Activity. He’s also notorious for changing what his directors had originally envisioned. I bet Shyamalan wanted more scenes that provided us with insight into the characters and Blum cut them in favor of more jump scares. If there’s a real director’s cut of this movie out there, I want to see it. Still, this is easily the best movie that Blum has ever produced and that’s undoubtedly because he had a director with an actual vision.
Shyamalan is, of course, known for his famous twists. They even became a detriment to him. We walked in to each movie anticipating it rather than being surprised by it. I expected one in The Visit to be sure but this was the first time since Unbreakable that it was actually something I did not anticipate. It’s a genuine shock and it’s not cheap either. It’s the best kind of twist. Like The Sixth Sense, it’s a twist that makes you look back at the earlier scenes while improving upon them. It explains the earlier actions of the characters without dismissing them. And I cannot stress enough how generally unnerving it is. Once the twist is revealed, humor goes right out of the story and pure, unadulterated terror takes its place. I can’t remember the last time a mainstream horror movie had me so on edge. The last twenty minutes of the film are a masterclass in tension and a reminder of why Shyamalan was dubbed ‘the next Hitchcock’ so many years ago.
September is usually a dumping ground for Hollywood, which is another one of the reasons I didn’t expect much from The Visit. But, despite its flaws, this is a very solid genre picture. I do wonder if I would have liked it as much if say, it had came out right after Signs. I did have low expectations going in. But that ultimately doesn’t matter. It didn’t come out right after Signs. It came out now and, in a climate where mainstream horror films are suffering due to a lack of creativity, The Visit is a breath of fresh air. Let’s hope Shyamalan stays on this track. Because, while sitting through this, I was reminded of the way I felt when I first saw The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. I felt like this was a man with something to say, a man with real command of mood, tension, suspense, humor, and character. He felt like the real deal back then. He does again now.
Now, I’d like to discuss some spoilers. Please do not read unless you have seen the actual movie. I mean it. I’m only bringing them up because I feel like the film’s main twist will be criticized in an idiotic, uniformed way and want to piss all over that criticism. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie, go away and come back when you have. I fucking mean it. I will hunt you down and hurt you if you don’t. I’m going to put annoying Gifs in your way just so you stay away till you’ve seen the movie.
Allright, you’re still here then? Fine. The main thing I want to bring up is this criticism I’m sure some people will throw against the movie: that the grandparents are too cray, too stereotypical, and too broad too be realistic or frightening. Once they are revealed as crazy people, not supernatural monsters, it seems easy to write off their behavior as too ludicrous to be frightening. Well guess what folks? That ain’t the case. And I can tell you that from first hand experience. I’ve worked in the mental health field for quite some time now. I’ve dealt with schizophrenia directly and let me tell you, this is how those people behave. Someone really did their research here. It doesn’t paint schizophrenics in the most flattering light but it cannot be denied that the portrayal is accurate. If anything, the grandparents are actually too lucid to be real portraits of crazy people. Trust me on this. The Visit is the tame version of schizophrenic behavior. If you think it’s too silly or too unrealistic, you’re wrong. This is right on the money. Talk to anyone else in the mental health field and they’ll back me up. You can dislike the movie for other reasons but if you dislike it because you think it’s portrayal of madness is inaccurate or silly, then you are simply incorrect.