THE VISIT (2015)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language)
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 9/11/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 10, 2015
Even though the movie is a horror-comedy that leans substantially toward the comic side, The Visit still wants us to be scared. It's a tough sell and one that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan doesn't quite succeed at making. On a side note, this is, admittedly, the filmmaker's best movie in over a decade, although that's more a statement about his output during that period than it is a ringing or even a half-hearted endorsement of this particular movie.
Shyamalan's screenplay spends about two-thirds of its running time nudging us about the movie's final intentions. It repeatedly suggests the potential for some form of horror in the seemingly mundane, before stopping just short of the payoff. The movie saves that payoff, of course, for the climax, in which we learn what's really happening in this apparently normal house on what should have been a completely normal trip for two teenagers to visit their grandparents for a week.
One of the grandchildren, by the by, is a budding filmmaker making a documentary as a way to bring closure to the rift between her mother and the grandparents. It's not enough that we're keen to the fact that Shyamalan is teasing our expectations. He wants to make sure we know that he knows what he's doing. Discussions of filmmaking technique and a debate about the ethics of documentary filmmaking are almost plot points here, and if they're not, they're at least here so that we can be aware of Shyamalan's guiding hand. The movie's tone is like one long wink, until its eyes widen in the menacing cackle of a prankster who believes his joke has been a success.
The movie doesn't earn our trust, which is really what's needed for the payoff to work, but then again, Shyamalan doesn't set out to earn our trust in the first place. It's strange, then, that the movie's climax is as routine as it is, because everything that precedes it is fashioned to undermine exactly the sort of tricks the climax attempts to achieve. It almost seems unfair to criticize the movie for not pulling off a seemingly improbable trick—that of making us laugh with and at its premise and characters for so long before expecting us to take the whole thing far more seriously. It is, though, an improbability created from the movie's own devices, so that, one supposes, makes it fair game.
The kids here are 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge), the blossoming filmmaker, and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), an aspiring rapper. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn, once again putting a lot more consideration and talent into a thankless role than it really deserves) has agreed to let her children visit her parents at their farm in rural Pennsylvania. In her late teens, mom left the house on a sour note to pursue a doomed romance with the kids' father, who later abandoned the family. She hasn't spoken to her parents since she left, but Becca believes she can bring the family together again with some probing interviews.
The grandparents, whom the kids dub Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), seem nice enough. There's no cellphone service at the farm, but there is a high-speed web connection so the kids can talk to their mother via video chat. They do have to get used to bed time at 9:30 p.m., as well as the fact that Nana has a habit of wandering around the house late at night, scratching at doors and running or crawling through rooms. Pop Pop insists she suffers from a certain kind of dementia, but he has his own odd habits, too.
The material is amusing in a twisted way, as the grandparents' behavior becomes increasingly unhinged, and it gets some mileage from the four central performances. DeJonge and Oxenbould make for a pair of quirky, precocious teens without crossing into the territory of becoming annoying. Dunagan and McRobbie have a lot of fun with their roles, with the former imbuing Nana with an unexpected degree of melancholy in an effective scene in which Becca tries to get her grandmother to talk about the mother leaving decades ago. There's also an affecting through line involving how Becca and Tyler have responded to their father leaving them.
The style of a faux documentary serves the movie's attempts to build tension well, especially a game of hide-and-seek through the crawlspace under the house (An allegedly feeble character is quite nimble under there) and one shot in which a possible threat wielding a knife takes control of one of the cameras. There's always a tinge of macabre humor to these scenes (Nana asks Becca if she would clean the inside of the oven and tells her to get more of her body in there), so there's never a real sense of threat.
That seems to be the point, although that does change drastically in the climax. Yes, there are spurts of humor as its horror show progresses (Tyler's germophobia is tested significantly), but we're still just witnessing the usual tricks of the genre, with dead bodies popping into frame and standoffs with killers in darkened rooms. The Visit spends so long trying to make us laugh that, when it tries to scare us, our reflex is to laugh some more.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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