I, like you, have pretty much sworn off M. Night Shyamalan films. It wasn’t so much that his films were technically bad. In fact, some of his tracking shots and use of jump cuts are some of the most jarring uses in modern cinema. His story lines, on the other hand, are often so unbelievably ridiculous, building towards a crescendo of some big reveal that ultimately almost always underwhelms. This is why I was so reluctant to watch The Visit, despite its intriguing trailer. I’m not always the biggest fan of films that star kids, but I’m glad I made an exception and sat down to watch Shyamalan’s latest.
In today’s post-modern age, especially with such a fickle viewing audience, making a ‘scary movie’ is no easy feat. Why, Shyamalan’s own track record demonstrates that fear is subjective yet still very reliant upon staid genre conventions that are guaranteed to make the audience squirm. In today’s horror/thriller film world, conventions are being subverted and fused. A mash-up of scary films past to make one modern movie is not that unusual. In The Visit, Shyamalan eschews almost all of these current trends and tendencies to make a truly thrilling film. Despite its footage-style type of storytelling, everything else in the film is wholly original and crisp, which for me, exceeded the little expectations I had.
Enough of that theoretical b.s. Let’s get to the film! The story is a simple one. Two siblings, Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going on a week-long stay with their grandparents, John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan), whom they’ve never met. Their mother Paula, played by a miscast Kathryn Hahn, in turn is about to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The two kids wish to make a documentary about their visit with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met. For most of the film, it is vague why Paula and her parents had a falling out resulting in them not having seen each other in 15 years. While it is explained that Paula ran away from home with her high school teacher, Robert, whom she later eloped. The specifics are never really articulated, despite Rebecca’s unsuccessful attempts to get her mother and grandmother to provide more details. As it turns out, Paula’s relationship with Robert relationship didn’t last, and the kids are being raised only by her.
It’s a bit shady as to why Paula is willing to have her children visit their grandparents after all of these years. She doesn’t seem to be looking for a reconciliation. She claims she did some research online and her parents seem like upstanding citizens and act as counsellors at their local hospital. Paula drops off the children at the train station where her parents will be at the destination, ready to pick them up and have ‘the visit’.
On schedule, the grandparents pick up Rebecca and Tyler and bring them to their secluded farmhouse. Replete with handmade blankets and rustic furniture, their house is more like a cottage instead of a house. Rebecca, armed with her camera and laptop, and Tyler with his propensity to be a rapper (not sure about this plot point – I’m thinking it’s a trait to bring in the kids and watch the film) try to record everything and anything to document visiting their grandparents.
The children are warned not to go into the basement because there’s a mould problem. They are warned not to leave their bedroom after 9:30 pm because their grandmother has an illness. Rebecca witnesses this first hand on an unfortunate visit to the kitchen and encounters an ill grandmother. As the days pass, the grandparents begin to demonstrate more and more strange behaviour. This is where Shyamalan’s plot shines. The grandmother, Doris (played by the phenomenal, Tony-award winning Deanna Dunagan) is fragile but terrifying. She moves like a crazed by graceful panther, innocent but willing to scare the children while playing hide and seek and playing board games. She’s what I imagine the grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood would have been like.
There are no ridiculous twists or presence of aliens in The Visit. It’s an old-fashioned thriller that is well acted and taut. The documentary style footage brings a verity to the film that the Paranormal Activity series tries to achieve. The acting is also spot on. Besides the aforementioned Doris, the up and coming Olivia DeJonge brings street smarts and self-awareness to a role that could have easily been annoying. She wants to give her grandparents a chance, even after encountering some truly bizarre behaviour. Rebecca wants to bring her mother and grandmother together, and is willing to look over ‘old people’ behavior to get that ultimately reconciliation.
When they express their concerns with their mother via Skype, their mother is quick to say their strangeness is because they’re old. The kids, wholly trusting their mom, try to make light of their grandparents tendencies but when that final straw is taken, they embark on a stealth, intelligent mission to ensure their safety.
The film is VERY scary in that not much scary actually happens. The Visit is a very physiological film. The viewer knows that something sinister is going on (the trailer explains as much), but what truly defines that malevolence is mostly up to interpretation. You’ll know what I mean when you see the oven scene. While the film neatly ties up all loose endings by the climax, there are some lingering questions that will befall the viewer. These are provocative questions because they’re not relating to the actual plot of the film. The viewer is not given an open ending or unexplained phenomena, but there are incidents and character motivations that are indeed, and intentionally, left hanging. Why is Doris so intrigued by the well in the backyard? What is the deal with those diapers in the shed? And WTF is up with their internet connections? Shyamalan deftly comments upon body image and the nuclear family without being preachy or judgmental. The secondary characters that are introduced bring the psychological tenseness and pervading tone of the film up a notch, their presence not made entirely clear but explainable, depending on the viewer’s ideas and thoughts on what they are seeing.
The Visit is much more than a visit. It’s a return to form of Shyamalan, harking back to what made The Sixth Sense so popular. It gets under your skin for many, and for no reasons. This is one scary film you don’t have to check your brain at the door. It’s clever and sharp, and unlike the other thrillers and horror films at the multiplex, it’s a story that proves that being scared doesn’t mean you are going to behave stupidly.