M. Night Shyamalan fans, rejoice! His latest feature, The Visit, hints that happier days may lie ahead. This venture, filmed on a modest budget, takes a ton of chances and offers, perhaps, the most unrestrained vision we’ve seen from the divisive artist. Sadly, the awkward tonal shifts between realistic drama and conventional horror never allow The Visit to progress past a curious experiment. But what a bafflingly-curious experiment it is!
Ultimately, as a film critic, you can’t recommend a horror movie that isn’t scary, and The Visit isn’t scary. It’s bat-shit crazy, but it isn’t scary. As you watch the increasingly bizarre events unfold, you aren’t sure if Shyamalan is making a parody of horror films or if he genuinely believes these things are scary. Were it a parody, it would be brilliant, but the otherwise realistic tone of the film makes it clear that we’re supposed to be screaming instead of laughing.
What really works with The Visit, and suggests that Shyamalan has found his second creative wind, is the emphasis on solid storytelling. Yes, there is a twist near the film’s conclusion, but it doesn’t draw attention to itself. This isn’t a case of Shyamalan saying, “Look how clever I am,” but “From here on out, anything can happen.” Still, it’s the simplicity of the story and the delicate characterizations that really stand out.
Fifteen year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is trying to jumpstart closure on an ancient family feud. It’s the kind of doomed optimism that only a child can entertain, and it rings absolutely true. What distinguishes Becca from typical teenagers in this genre is her intelligence, wit, and spunk. With aspirations of becoming a filmmaker, she sets about recording the reconciliation between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and her grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). Words were spoken 15 years ago that made a resentful daughter leave home forever and Becca wants to know why.
To make this happen, she and her sassy little brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), travel to the family farm under the guise of “getting to know” their mysterious grandparents. Becca is all business, however, filming everything with multiple cameras and soliciting confessions and testimonials whenever possible. While this may seem like nothing more than an excuse to exploit the ‘Found Footage’ sub-genre, nothing could be further from the truth. Becca knows her shit. She talks about focal lengths, mise en scène, and changes in perspective like a burgeoning film student. When she spies a rustic tree swing, she advises Tyler not to touch it. “Let it organically swing!” These details make The Visit the most convincing first-person camera yarn to date, as well as one of the most observant movies about aspiring filmmakers in quite some time. You feel a young, idealistic Shyamalan insinuating himself into the action and it’s surprisingly refreshing.
Unfortunately, once the kids arrive on the farm, Shyamalan can’t resist abandoning the family drama and slipping back into horror mode. There are some genuine moments of creepiness surrounding Pop Pop, including his penchant for soiled undergarments, but Nana is a one-trick pony. She creeps and crawls; she laughs maniacally; she has more dessert recipes than a Martha Stewart cookbook. Once you understand the limits of her possibilities, she becomes the embodiment of tedium. That is, when you aren’t laughing at her shenanigans (expect a healthy dose of granny nudity!).
And you’ll be laughing a lot at The Visit. In fact, there are enough laughs to make a genuine claim for horror-comedy status. Becca’s intelligent sarcasm works flawlessly, and Tyler, who fancies himself a rapper, is a lovable smartass who uses humor as a defense mechanism. The physical gags, particularly in the final act, have a decidedly Evil Dead vibe to them. Though his dialogue can often be clunky, Shyamalan seems more at home with this lighthearted and glib material.
It is entirely possible that The Visit is a sly parody of horror films that has soared over this particular film critic’s head. Given the utmost sincerity of the family drama, however, it seems unlikely any of the scary scenes are intentionally played for laughs. It’s more likely they are meant to engender a genuine sense of creepiness, which they never achieve. Bizarre, yes, but never creepy. It’s ironic that the strongest moments in The Visit have nothing to do with horror, but with the stripped-down family dynamics. A fractured, divorced family dealing with their anger and insecurity is far more interesting than granny crawling under the bed. It’s the incompatibility of these tones that ultimately undermines Shyamalan. He’s on the right track, though, which is cause for optimism.