Monday, September 14, 2015

Movie Review: The Visit

The Visit
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring: Olivia DeJonge (Becca), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), Kathryn Hahn (Mom), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Stacey).

No one could deny that M. Night Shyamalan’s career hasn’t exactly followed the path anyone – least of all himself – could possibly have expected. He is a director who had a huge ego – but when he was on top of the film world, it almost seemed justified. After all, Time Magazine proclaimed him to be the next Spielberg, and he had several beloved hits in a row – starting with The Sixth Sense (1999) and moving onto Unbreakable (2000 – his best film) and Signs (2002). Then of course, things started to go wrong. He became known as “twist ending” guy, and every time out it seemed like he was trying to top himself with a more ridiculous twist. The Village (2004) made money, but got horrible reviews. Lady in the Water (2006) didn’t make money, and got worse reviews (I actually kind of like that demented fairy tale of a movie). By the time of The Happening (2008) Shyamalan had gone from Hollywood golden boy into a joke. He finally tried to do something different with his next two films – The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) – and somehow ended up making even worse film. How the hell did an director with this much promise end up doing films this bad? His latest film, The Visit, isn’t exactly a return to form – but it is the best movie Shyamalan has made in a while, and damn good little horror/comedy to boot. It doesn’t rise to the levels of his best work, but the film works damn it – and even manages to pull off a truly surprising third act twist – so yes, it really does seem like Shyamalan still has some of the same old instinct left in him after all.

The movie is yet another entry in the “found footage” horror genre – one that has mainly been played out by now, but which Shyamalan injects some new life into. The footage isn’t exactly “found”, but is the work of teenage director Becca (Olivia DeJonge) who along with her brother (and “B Camera Operator”) Tyler is going to make a documentary about their visit to the grandparents they have never met. Her mother and them had a falling out when she left home as a 19 year old to marry their father – who has since abandoned the family. Their mother won’t be going with them – it will just be the two kids and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) for a week, as their mother takes a cruise with their new boyfriend. Becca lectures Tyler about framing and mis-en-scene in amusingly pretentious diatribes – but it must be said that The Visit actually takes framing more seriously than most found footage movies. Shyamalan often films the action taking place entirely on one side of the screen – leaving the other side empty. This is, of course, a perfect opportunity to add something the characters do not see on the other side of the frame – which Shyamalan does sometimes, but not all the time (thus keeping the audience on its toes).

The Visit to the grandparents doesn’t, of course, go as planned. The grandparents are both strange – in very different ways – and both insist that the other is “sick”. Nana does very strange things during the night – causing all sorts of strange noises, which the kids investigate and find disturbing, but Pop Pop just says she is “sundowning”, which is normal for old people. Pop Pop on the other hand seems paranoid, and secretive – spending a lot of time in the shed, lashing out violently at a random man on the street he thinks is following them.

The movie is chock full of horror movie clich├ęs, but to the film’s credit, it knows this and actually has some fun with them. It’s also full of horror movie references – from Psycho to Halloween, and many others, and also has fun with those. In fact, one of the best things about The Visit is something that Shyamalan hasn’t really shown before – a sense of humor. Even in his best films, he’s always been so serious that the films are somewhat marred because even as they get silly, they think they are profound. Not so in The Visit – which doesn’t feature any cameos by Shyamalan as a writer who will save the world, or film critics getting mauled to death, or anyone saying something as silly as “Swing away”. This is a Shyamalan who is having some fun. And it works – particularly because the two kids are such charming screen presences, and the grandparents hold nothing back, going deliriously over the top. In short, the film is ridiculous, but it knows it is.

The film is also legitimately scary – especially in the final act. Shocking, Shyamalan is able to pull off a twist ending that left me legitimately surprised (although it makes complete sense in retrospect, which is the best kind of twist). Shyamalan had been setting up a twist from the beginning, but he does so skillfully enough that he misdirects you from what he’s really doing.

It’s clear now that Shyamalan will not, in fact, be the next Spielberg. He may never make a film as great as Unbreakable ever again really. But The Visit at least shows a way forward for Shyamalan for the first time in a decade. No one is going to argue that it is a great film – but it is a hell of a lot of fun, and is legitimately scary. That’s what a horror movie is supposed to be – and it’s what Shyamalan pulls off with The Visit.

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