The Visit (2015)

19 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

M. Night Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker who has made his mark with “The Sixth Sense” and followed it up with hits such as “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” But after “The Village,” which has split audiences right down the middle in terms of opinion, he has taken many bad spills in his career, resulting in him being the punchline of many movie-related jokes. (These spills are titles such as “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth.”) He was in desperate need for a comeback—if not a home run, then a solid base hit at least. Thankfully, he accomplished a double-base hit with “The Visit,” his best film in at least ten years.

What made his bad films bad? For one thing, they were so damn self-serious. He successfully made it work in his heyday, but after that, he turned in some pretentious, forced filmmaking elements that made his last few films insufferable. That’s why it’s such a relief to actually laugh at the very entertaining “The Visit” because I’m actually supposed to. It is a horror film and it is unnervingly chilling, but at the same time, it’s very funny. I haven’t seen a film work with that kind of balance before, and I applaud Shyamalan for not taking himself too seriously like he did before.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are suburban teenage siblings visiting their grandparents, who haven’t spoken with their daughter, the kids’ mother (Kathryn Hahn), in decades. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and decides to make a documentary about the visit, these people, and the effect their rejection had on her mother. The kids like their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie)—they seem nice, they’re funny, they seem like grandparents you find in a storybook. But soon enough, they start to notice something isn’t quite right here. Pop Pop keeps going out to the barn by himself. Nana asks Becca to climb all the way into the oven to clean it. The kids hear ominous sounds coming from outside their bedroom at night. And so on. (One of the few problems I have with this movie is whenever the kids tell their mother how “weird” their grandparents are being, she uses the excuse: “they’re just old.” Right.)

As is typical of a Shyamalan film, there is a twist that is revealed late in the proceedings—what IS the deal with these kids’ grandparents? I was watching this movie like a hawk, looking for clues and hints that could lead to what the twist could probably be. Imagine how surprised I was when I didn’t guess it correctly. I’ll be honest—I was so shocked, I felt the world expand around me as the reveal became clear. Then I facepalmed myself for not seeing it coming. (Watching the film again, knowing the twist, actually made the film even more entertaining, which is a huge plus.)

The film is very good at balancing horror and comedy. For example, early in the film, there’s a chilling scene in which Nana chases the kids in a crawlspace under the house, but it turns out she was just playing a game. Moments like this keep the audience guessing, glued to their seats, and wanting to know what’s going on, and it leads to a most entertaining final act; the less I say about that, the better.

The film is shot in found-footage style. Since the film is supposed to be put together like Becca’s documentary, we see everything through the perspective of her camera. This was probably Shyamalan’s biggest risk to take, since this style is wearing out its welcome (though, that’s what people said three years ago and yet films like this are still being made). But he managed to inject some energy into this approach, making executional flaws excusable. (Among the flaws: the video and sound are TOO good for a kid making a documentary, so it’s a little hard to get a natural feeling from the entire film.)

Dunagan and McRobbie are a hoot as Nana and Pop Pop, playing the roles with exaggerated delight. DeJonge is fine as a budding filmmaker who can be pretentious at times, explaining things to her brother like “mise en scene” and “the elixir” and so on. Oxenbould is a riot as Tyler. I forgot to mention this kid wants to be a rapper and often replaces swear words with pop-artist names (for example: “Sarah McLachlan!”)—he raps a few times in the film. Oh and he’s a germophobe…and I won’t even begin to mention how that quirk comes into play later in the film.

Shyamalan hasn’t made the film totally natural. (I already nitpicked the technical aspect, and while I’m at it, sometimes the dialogue and deliveries aren’t entirely convincing.) But he has learned to lighten up with his craft. In doing so, he redeemed himself, making his remaining fans (such as me) wonder what he’ll come up with next. “The Visit” is a lot of fun, even if it isn’t a complete success.

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