The Visit (2015) / Horror-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Review published September 12, 2015
Sporadically effective as a black comedy but a bit too this to be a satisfying horror movie, The Visit is a low-budget attempt by M. Night Shyamalan to "start over" in trying to build up his reputation back to former glory with something fresh and unexpected. His last two films, After Earth and The Last Airbender, were commercial and critical flops (though I didn't really mind either), so what's different here is that he is working with no stars (i.e., no egos other than his own), and the most limited resources of his career (reportedly, a $5 million production budget that he funded himself). The Visit plays more for light amusement that horrific scares, though there is a sense of creepiness that pervades a few scenes. It's only because some of his more recent efforts have been deemed so awful (especially The Happening) that anyone would label the anemic entertainment value of The Visit as a sign of a comeback.
Fifteen-year-old Becca (DeJonge, The Sisterhood of Night) and her slightly younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould, Alexander and the...Bad Day) are sent for a week-long stay in rural Pennsylvania to stay at the home of the grandparents they've never met while their single mother (Hahn, Tomorrowland) decides to treat herself to a romantic cruise with her new beau. Their first time staying with the elderly for an extended period, the kids are disturbed by the behavior of their Nana (Dunagan, Running Scared) and Pop Pop (McRobbie, Inherent Vice), including Nana's cavorting around the house nude in a manic state, or Pop Pop's tantrums and mysterious trips to he secluded shed outside.
The Visit is co-produced and marketed by Blumhouse Productions, who specialize mostly in low-budget horror movies of this ilk, with a special eye toward found-footage movies shot on digital cameras without many big stars on the payroll to break the illusion of 'reality'. To conform to this format, Shyamalan frames his film as if it is a documentary shot by the two kids. utilizing a couple of handheld cameras, so that they can document the things they don't know about their family, including who their grandparents are, why they became estranged from their mother, and perhaps what might have happened to drive a wedge between their mother and father.
You can likely count on one hand the amount of times a found-footage film has resulted in a truly good movie, and maybe one or two fingers at most the number of times that use of the gimmick actually made it work better than shooting a straight-forward narrative. The Visit is not one of those rare exceptions. And it effectively takes away the one thing that Shyamalan is actually quite good at, even as his ability to craft a good story has gone to pot, and that's in delivering a film of good visual quality and effective direction in key suspenseful moments. By removing his one obvious asset, Shyamalan has to try to flex muscles he's not as natural at, including trying to make an effective comedy, as well as write rich, vibrant characters we enjoy following. While the film isn't without laughs or colorful performances, without a good story to put them in, delivered with gripping panache, we're left with but a few interesting or mildly unnerving moments amid a collection of scenes that fill time without much entertainment value beyond the mystery of where it's all building up to.
While The Visit is generally amusing in tone, the laughs are somewhat sparse, and outside of one or two truly surprising jump-scares, the film isn't really terrifying enough to sate horror junkies looking for a good fright flick. Most of the 'scares' in this film are merely just exaggerated forms of things that happen when one grows old: deteriorating and sagging bodies, incontinence, and something called 'sundowning' (the movie's original title), a true-life condition in which the afflicted has bouts of confusion, mood swings, involuntary body movements, and restlessness that begin to occur after the sun has set for the evening. Your unease with the film will likely be directly be correlated with your general unease about people of advanced age, as the gerontophobic storyline has nothing supernatural going on other than the natural process we all are, or will be, going through in our golden years. While other films are called out for being racist, sexist, or xenophobic, somehow ageism is still considered acceptable by and large from the general public, and The Visit may be a prime example that digs deep into our prejudices toward finding what happens to humans once they get old to be icky, creepy, or horrific.
Shyamalan had been known as the 'gimmicky twist' director after employing them in most of his early works, to the point where he stopped using them in more recent efforts. Nevertheless, the stigma still exists for him, so some will probably still be scanning the film to find if the rug is going to be pulled out from under us in the end. I won't spoil anything here, as just knowing if there is a twist makes it a different experience than going in without preconceived notions, but I merely bring it up because it's a no-win situation for Shyamalan, as those who expect it will likely slight his effort if they figure out what's going on by the time it is revealed, or they'll be disappointed that the storyline is too straightforward and without adequate surprises if the twist never occurs.
Shyamalan gathers a decent cast here, all charismatic actors that play mostly for its intentionally campy tone. Oxenbould in particular provides the film's biggest comic-relief moments, and perhaps the only truly unique character, effectively showing how fun young tykes like him are, or how irritating, depending on what you think about obnoxious little squirts like Tyler. Though there are some fun moments to be sure, there just aren't enough of them strung together to make The Visit one you might want to pay a visit yourself, feeling like about fifteen minutes of funny, clever or interesting moments interspersed with over an hour of footage that could have been excised were this not a feature film.
The Visit is the kind of movie one expects from an untested director looking to prove what he can do in the industry with a miniscule budget, not really engaging enough to make for a mass-appeal push, but showing studios enough of the talent behind the camera to give him a shot with something truly meaty. However, from a man that was once a name that merited putting above a film's title to get butts into seats on a very wide scale, to see him have to try to prove himself yet again is a bittersweet experience, sad because he was touted as the new Spielberg or Hitchcock of his generation, but happy that he is willing to try to give his flagging career the second wind it so desperately needs by going back to fundamentals. Hopefully, his next effort will be the real comeback we've been waiting anxiously for.
©2015 Vince Leo