September 11, 2015
M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Kathyrn Hahn as Mom
Olivia DeJonge as Becca
Ed Oxenbould as Tyler
Deanna Dunagan as Nana
Peter McRobbie as Pop Pop
Going in, my expectations were neither high, nor low. After all, it’s been a good, long while since a Shyamalan film impressed. I didn’t want to set myself up for a great big fall, and if The Visit turned out to be a super-duper return to the promise of Shyamalan’s earlier career triumphs, it would be a welcome and pleasant surprise. So expectations were dead-set on: “Thrill me or don’t. I’m here.”
Let’s take a moment to rank his higher profile horror/thriller films – thus showing the proper placement of his latest – but sadly not greatest.
It’ll come as no surprise that The Sixth Sense takes the top spot. My ranking from there?
Lady in the Water
So you can surmise that based on this ranking, The Visit would garner a resounding average score. You are right. But, since I’m not solely comparing against his other works, I need to judge the film on its own merits. Wait. Sorry to say that even on its own two feet, The Visit doesn’t stray from that already-established average placement. But hey, the film’s still better than The Happening.
Budding filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother, the precocious wanna-be rapper, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) live with their divorced mother (Kathryn Hahn), ever since their father left five years ago. And they’ve had no contact with him since then. But his abandonment has left them as a very close-knit threesome. Mom’s also had no relationship with her parents for a very long time (the reveal for this long estrangement at the end of the film was a bit flimsy).
The kids are sent to rural Pennsylvania for a week long “getting to know you” vacation with their maternal grand-parents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie). Naturally, Becca films the entire thing, spouting off cinematic and camera terms like she was a seasoned Steven Spielberg (I found this “older than her years” motif off-putting). Upon arrival to this quiet home, the children are greeted with baked goods, tours of their mother’s old stomping grounds and warnings (as the advertisements/posters state) to not come out of their guest room after 9:30pm. As can be expected, things go from weird to downright dangerous as the children are left to solve the mysteries, fend for themselves and naturally FILM EVERYTHING.
Which gives you some insight into the fact that we have yet another found footage film on our exasperated hands. The Visit had a lot in common with the original Paranormal Activity, not only in its found footage style, but in its structure. In both films, we’re presented with creepy oddities which are being documented. There is a build-up of tension (more-so in Paranormal Activity) that as each day falls into night, the audience knows that events will become more frightening and severe as the story marches on.
The Visit could easily have been filmed as a traditional picture. The fact that Becca is a documentary filmmaker offers the option for strange angles, lots of crazed pans to reveal spooky images and the first person connections, but it also brings to light the age-old problems from which these films can never escape. Why are you still holding the camera when your life is in danger? Use the camera, yes – but use it as a bludgeon – something to get you out of this mess. Shyamalan is late to the found footage game and has brought nothing new to this tired and over-used sub-genre.
Shyamalan is sadly in a bad place as a filmmaker. There’s no doubt that he’s a gifted artist, and frankly, I have always been fond of his dialogue. He can also do some amazing visual things, but he will forever be pigeon-holed as “the twist guy”. If he tries to do something traditional (minus the mind-blowing twist), audiences won’t bite.
If he continues to build on his twist-history (which is what he is doing here) he needs to really find something new, something solid and something out of this world. He doesn’t do that with The Visit. So the question is, how many more times will he attempt to one-up his Oscar-nominatedThe Sixth Sense? This talented dude is really stuck.
And in the grand scheme of Shyamalan “holy crap” moments, the surprise in The Visit is pretty darn blah. I know that many audiences hated the ridiculous “water” reveal of Signs (admittedly, in hindsight it’s pretty lame), but the dynamics between that family were true, exciting, funny and loveable. We connected to Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his tribe. While we don’t dislike the family here, there’s no deep connection – therefore nothing is really at stake. The point I’m making is that had we loved this family more, the lukewarm twist might have been less of a bummer/disappointment, ‘cause there were other quality components to distract us. It’s a case of, “If we can’t have both, we’ve gotta have one or the other.”
Performance-wise, it’s solid. Shyamalan is very good with actors. I’ve never found any performance issues in his other films. The Visit is no exception. Oh wait, there was Mark Wahlberg in The Happening. But I digress. In The Visit, the two stand-out performances are Ed Oxenbould as Tyler and Deanna Dunagan as Nana. Oxenbould’s young rapper is spunky and goofy, and despite Tyler’s lame germ phobia (not an effective payoff for this quirk) he’s a well written and believable kid. I like Tyler and Oxenbould’s delivery of Tyler’s special curse words (a highlight in the film) are worth a laugh every single time.
As for Dunagan’s Nana, it’s a physical role, and her fearlessness (she has several semi-nude scenes) and absolute commitment to Nana’s behaviors is remarkable. She makes Nana sweet and likeable, and then when the lights go down, turns her into – possibly a terrifying witch (the Hansel & Gretel homages could have been further exploited), or perhaps what Tyler believes – a werewolf or she’s just plain mentally ill. She’s one of the high points in this very average picture. Dunagan is fantastic.
But – the final payoff/twist/reveal is sorely lacking and boringly unoriginal. I figured it out fairly early on. I won’t lie and say it was transparent and that I’m a brilliant film-goer – paltry mysteries beneath my intelligence. No. I was definitely searching for clues for a good long while. The big secret is something used for any number of other horror films, both in story locations and in beloved horror characters. At the end, I said to myself, “That’s what you could come up with?” Not a win.
There are some very effective scares to be enjoyed in The Visit. The film’s well-done sound lends itself to lots of creepiness and jolts. Unfortunately, the under-whelming suspense (it almost makes it) doesn’t draw us in enough. The first night in the house, as Becca sneaks out to get some of Nana’s cookies, she witnesses Nana pacing downstairs and randomly vomiting – believe me, it makes you very uneasy. And despite the spookiness of Nana’s additional behavior – night after night, it’s just not enough.
The Visit is currently in theatres, but it doesn’t warrant a visit (ahem) to your local cinema. It’s worth seeing for some of the finer points, but there’s certainly no rush or need to do anything beyond selecting it from your Netflix queue – when that time arrives.