WRITTEN REVIEW – The Visit (2015)
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJong, Ed Oxenbould, Peter McRobbie, Deanna Dunagan & Kathryn Hahn
Release Date: September 9th 2015
Sometimes you need to hit rock-bottom before you realise that something is wrong and I think that perfectly sums up M. Night Shyamalan’s approach to his latest film. Despite bursting onto the filmmaking scene in the late 1990s with ‘The Sixth Sense‘ and finding continuing success with ‘Unbreakable‘ and ‘Signs‘, some were dubbing Shyamalan as “the next Spielberg”. But Shyamalan started to believe his own hype and a toxic cocktail of terrible decisions and self-importance led to flop after flop after flop. ‘The Village‘, ‘Lady in the Water‘ and ‘The Happening‘ have all become ridiculed in recent years, but it was the big-budget mainstream action films ‘The Last Airbender‘ and ‘After Earth‘ that seemed to seal the deal.
In the face of both of those failures, Shyamalan has decided to go smaller and more personal for what could be his comeback to the low-budget scene from whence he came. Teaming up with Blumhouse Productions who have made a name for themselves over the past few years releasing low-budget horror films, Shyamalan brings us a found-footage horror tongue-in-cheek comedy. But does the former prodigy still have talent or is this guy unredeemable after so many disasters?
Siblings Rebecca (DeJonge) and Tyler (Oxenbould) are invited to stay at their Grandparent’s house for the first time as their single-mother Paula (Hahn) has not allowed them to meet previously due to her having a large fight with them on the night she left home. Rebecca is an aspiring documentary filmmaker and decides to bring her cameras to document the week-long trip and to try and find out what happened to make her mother resent her grandparents so much. When the two arrive and meet John (McRobbie) and Doris (Dunagan) who seem kind enough at first, but start to exhibit very strange behaviour, particularly after 9:30pm when Doris experiences extreme symptoms of sundown syndrome causing her to act aggressive and erratic. The two children must try and find out what is wrong with their grandparents and with their mother away on holiday with a potential new boyfriend, they’re on their own to solve the mystery.
Despite being a found-footage movie (and having been recently reminded of just how terrible and fundamentally broken this genre is) ‘The Visit‘ is one of the increasingly rare exceptions where the format actually works for the most part. The reason for this is that ‘The Visit‘ doesn’t claim to be real footage that has been found by a police department that has been released in movie theatres and charging the population to watch it (because who would do that?), but it’s presented more as a mockumentary with face-to-face interviews, time lapses and other hallmarks. The movie even has opening and closing credits. As a result, ‘The Visit‘ is a more thoughtful horror film with dramatic themes and an emphasis on character with smatterings of horror throughout which is a good approach to take with found-footage.
That having been said, found-footage is still an inherently broken genre and ‘The Visit‘ cannot surmount that. One cannot fix something that never worked in the first place. The way the scenes are edited don’t make sense in the context of a documentary and would only make sense if it was deliberately cut as a found-footage horror film (despite being presented as a documentary made by a teenager with a demonstrably strong grasp on the cinematic language). There are production inconsistencies with the DSLR camera and small camcorder that Rebecca has brought (both are shown on screen being filmed by the other camera) despite the picture quality not only being WAAAAY to high for a DSLR of that type, but also being able to pick up the audio of people over a dozen metres away without external microphones. Even the webcam used during the Skype calls is way too high of a quality to be an internal or external webcam for a laptop or tablet device.
To illustrate a point, here’s a legitimate behind-the-scenes photo of ‘The Visit‘. That’s the actual camera being used to try and sell itself as a small consumer piece of equipment for a found-footage movie…
But formatting itself as a mockumentary actually allows for some interesting thematic beats in ‘The Visit‘ as it’s ultimately a story about familial forgiveness and it’s actually very well done because Rebecca is such a well defined character and Olivia DeJonge plays her so convincingly. There’s a lot of unspoken characterisation that comes from Rebecca’s actions in the story and how DeJonge portrays her, including her being a very strong-willed individual by necessity due to her father leaving at a young age as well as her harbouring some resentment towards him. She refuses to use footage of her dad in the documentary because she views that as a form of forgiveness towards him for walking out on them. But that attitude has also had some subliminal side-effects leaving her with a very low opinion of herself despite the front she puts on when on camera.
The best scene of the movie has her brother interview her and he’s been left with pre-determined questions to ask her as a warm up. She perfectly responds to the first warm-up question (“What animal would you want to be?”) in a clearly scripted fashion but once her brother deviates from the script and starts to take personal jobs, the façade gradually breaks down. It’s easily the best character beat in a Shyamalan movie since…I can’t even remember when.
Speaking of the brother, I have an odd like/dislike relationship with him. On one hand, I think he’s well acted and I like how he does feel like an actual child as opposed to a screenwriter’s idealised or even demonized IDEA of a child. He’s rude but quick to learn when he’s wrong, he makes fun of his older sister but only because he respects her and he’s sometimes brutally honest to a fault. On the other hand, he obnoxiously raps to the camera and it’s genuinely hard to watch.
But Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan give multi-layered performances as the grandparents and both actors are able to sell the welcoming and comforting grandparents aspect of the characters during the day and the creepy, sometimes psychotic aspects at night and as the movie progresses. When things go completely nuts during the final night, you get the sense that the two are having a lot of fun, particularly McRobbie. But it’s genuinely creepy how Dunagan can look like such a sweet and innocent old woman and still manage to be an incredibly intimidating presence when necessary over the course of the movie.
As for the twist towards the end, I won’t spoil it even though I did see it coming around halfway through when people started visiting the house and giving the audience some recent context. The hints were too big for it to really be a surprise. But the twist still works in the context of the horror film, but I think it partially undermines the mockumentary intentions.
And that’s the big issue with ‘The Visit‘. It’s torn between two conflicting aspects and while it does a fine job at balancing them, I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if it focused on either the horror elements or the dramatic themes and the growth of the main characters.
See, as a horror film ‘The Visit‘ is decent. It’s easily the scariest found-footage film to come out in a LOOOONG time because it relies on build-up, suspense and pay-off as opposed to endless, intellectually insulting jump-scares. There are a couple of jumps, but they feel earned and even I’ll admit that one did make me nearly leap out of my seat. And this is coming from a jaded individual. Though a lot of the scares come from the very end and with the two children separated with their own cameras the action cuts between the two resulting in a disjointed pace without much time to let an atmosphere develop. The moment that’s easily going to be the biggest talking-point about ‘The Visit‘ is so brief and it cuts away before any of the characters taking part in it can react, meaning that the ramifications of what just happened aren’t dealt with.
There’s also an act of violence at the very end of the film that seems like it should be the conclusion of a particular arc, but it felt like that build-up was lost on the cutting room floor and that act of violence wasn’t remotely earned. But thankfully, for the rest of the movie, it lays solid foundations without using any obviously-fake external sounds to enhance the mood (which immediately ruins the “integrity” of a found-footage film) or any background music (unless the characters are actually listening to music in the scene) so ‘The Visit‘ is to be commended for that.
But for me, the most interesting part about ‘The Visit‘ is the relationship between Rebecca, her mother, her father and the grandparents she’s never known and what they represent. There’s a compelling family drama to be told here and seeing it through the lens of a teenage daughter as she makes a documentary as a coping mechanism is a legitimately inspired story-telling choice that I find highly commendable and very original. Unfortunetly, it means that when the obligatory, if modestly well done horror elements rear their spooky heads I feel disappointed that I have to wade through these scenes to get to the real meat of the story. And the obligatory horror twist kinda robs the drama some of its pathos towards the end, but also adds another dimension to the ending…that is never acknowledged by any of the characters, which was disappointing.
‘The Visit‘ as a movie appropriately resembles the grandparents portrayed in the movie as it’s a movie of two halves that never truly feels comforting or scary but still elicits the appropriate emotions. The drama is compelling, but feels undercut by the horror and the horror can’t truly resonate because it’s spending too much time between set-pieces building up the characters leading up to a climax that doesn’t quite feel earned. ‘The Visit‘s conceit of creating a mockumentary as opposed to a proper “found-footage” horror movie is ultimately the reason why it works, but it’s still working from the tiresome, objectively broken found-footage filming style that has never actually worked in a pure-horror movie. With the exception of the twist ending, ‘The Visit‘ doesn’t quite feel like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but it feels like his heart was in the right place with this one and despite its narrative shortcomings does leave somewhat of an impact.
I give ‘The Visit‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 17th Sep 15