M Night is back, baby! And I wish I could say I’m loving every minute of it!
Sure, his career may have gone down the shitter in recent years, but I’ll always be a Shyamalan apologist. I mean, come on, he made The Sixth Sense, one of the most memorable ghost movies ever — with one of the most iconic lines ever (“I see dead people”) — before turning 30! He made one of my all-time sneaky favourite films with Unbreakable, and while I didn’t enjoy Signs as much as some people, I really loved The Village, warts and all. Even his subsequent panned films, like The Happening and the infamous The Last Airbender, were in my opinion not as bad as their reputations suggest. Sadly, though, even I can’t vouch for After Earth and of course, Lady in the Water. Those two were pure garbage.
And so I was naturally looking forward to his new movie, The Visit, a return to the horror genre and a supposed “return to form” for Shyamalan, according to the early critic and audience buzz.
Adding to the fascination is the fact that I’m currently reading the book The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger, a surprisingly in-depth look into the well-publicised drama surrounding Shyamalan’s production of Lady in the Water. To be honest, I was looking forward to reading what an egotistical douche he is, but I’m actually finding it quite difficult to dislike him. I’ll be reviewing the book on my writing blog once I’m through with it.
Anyway, back to the movie. The Visit is about a pair of siblings (played by young Aussies Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who go visit grandparents they’ve never met before because their divorced mother had a falling out with them many years ago. The elderly grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) seem nice enough at first, but soon strange and creepy things start to happen.
First of all, I think the biggest mistake Shyamalan made was in framing The Visit as a found-footage film. He could have made this movie as a conventional horror movie and I think it would have worked great, but instead he uses a contrivance — the sister wants to film a documentary about the visit — to make sure everything is caught on camera.
As with all found-footage films, credibility becomes a problem when things get a little crazy. Characters stubbornly hold on to their cameras and continue filming even when they should be pissing themselves or running for their lives, or the camera needs to be conveniently placed or dropped in perfect spots to “accidentally” capture the action. I hate this tactic and I’ve always hated it. No one’s been fooled by a found-footage film since The Blair Witch Project, and the stupidity must stop. Now!
That said, Shyamalan is too good of a director for The Visit to be a bad film. He’s always been masterful at creating atmosphere, and this time it’s no different. Shyamalan dials the creepiness up early on and keeps cranking it up higher and higher as the film progresses. Most of the scare tricks are not new, but to Shyamalan’s credit they can be quite effective thanks to skillful execution. They are also frequent enough, which immediately distinguishes the film from other found-footage horrors where the first three-quarters are all time fillers, red herrings and false alarms.
Since this is an M Night Shyamalan film, the question that everyone will ask is whether it has a big twist. I’m not going to answer that, of course, but I do think that aspect of his movies are over-emphasized. Just about every movie these days — and especially horror movies — has some sort of twist thrown in. What separates Shyamalan from the pack is not that his twists are “better”, it’s just that he is so much better at sleight of hand and creating diversions than most other directors.
So as a found-footage horror, The Visit is excellent, certainly notches above any of the Paranormal Activity movies and recent efforts like The Pyramid, Demonic, The Gallows, Devil’s Due and As Above, So Below. Sadly, though, I can’t bring myself to call The Visit a great film in the absence of such a caveat.
Apart from the fatal found-footage error, one of the issues I had was with the two kids. They’re just not very likable protagonists. The sister is bearable, but the brother is plain annoying. I found all his rapping more cringeworthy than funny. As a result it’s not easy to root for them. I also didn’t think the “character development” sequence in the middle of the film really worked either. Shyamalan doesn’t seem to be able to pin their characters down — they’re too mature one minute and too immature and naive the next.
Tonally, the film has a few glitches too. There is a surprising amount of humour, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. When it works, it helps relieve tension, but when it doesn’t it’s just awkward and harms the atmosphere Shyamalan has been trying to build up.
I also didn’t think the climax was executed as well as it could have been, with one decision in particular being a real head~scratcher as it sapped the scene of the tension it needed. The found-footage format was an obvious exacerbator.
Ultimately, The Visit ended up being a bit of a disappointment, though I’m glad Shyamalan toned down his ambitions with this stripped-down little horror flick. I guess when your reputation is in the dumps, anything half-decent movie can be considered a return to form. For me, while the film had its moments, there were too many poor decisions along the way — starting with the found-footage BS — to elevate it into the upper echelons of the Shyamalan catalogue. If you are a fan of found-footage films like Paranormal Activity, then there’s a good chance you’ll love The Visit. But since I’m not, I think it’s just a slightly-above-average film overall.
3 stars out of 5