The Visit was supposed to be a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, who made a name for himself with expertly crafted thriller The Sixth Sense. Since then, his career has taken a decidedly downward trajectory. His past three films: the incidentally hilarious The Happening, the flat-out terrible The Last Airbender, and the entirely forgettable After Earth have stripped away almost every inch of good will moviegoers had for Shyamalan. His latest makes little headway in earning that faith back.
The film opens as siblings Rebecca (Oliva DeJonge, Sisterhood of Night) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the No Good, Very Bad Day) embark on a visit to their estranged grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. They’re hoping to make a documentary about their newfound Nana and Pop Pop, and learn more about their mother, Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) who ran away from home when she was eighteen. At first, Nana (Deanna Dunagan, Running Scared) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, Lincoln) seem the perfect couple living in an idyllic country home, but the longer Tyler and Rebecca stay, the clearer it becomes that something isn’t quite right with Nana and Pop Pop.
If you couldn’t guess from the plot description, The Visit is a ‘found footage’ horror film, or mocumentary. It’s a subgenre that probably reached its peak a few years ago with the brilliant anthology film V/H/S, but Shyamalan actually uses it to good effect, giving himself the opportunity to pair things down a bit and focus on the core story. After two bloated, special effects driven films, The Visit is refreshingly small scale- and made for just $5 million actually Shyamalan’s cheapest film. Blumhouse Productions has made a name for itself producing chillers on shoestring budgets with the Paranormal Activity and Purge films. Earlier this summer they released the remarkably effective, no budget film Creep, another found footage thriller that proved that money is no substitute for good storytelling and compelling performances. Sadly, The Visit comes up short on both.
Formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing in filmmaking. Most films follow the same basic structure because audiences expect a certain rhythm from their films- the same way we expect a chocolate chip cookie to be a chocolate chip cookie. The Visit doesn’t just follow the formula, it copies the recipe right off the Nestle box. Viewers who have seen Signs know that Shyamalan is a fan of Chekhov’s gun, the idea that concepts brought up earlier in the film should pay off by the end (if Indiana Jones hates snakes, you can be damn sure he’s gonna run into some snakes). The Visit continues this trend in ways that are both obvious and obnoxious. The first half of the film is little more than a collection of eye-rolling scenes just begging you to ask, ‘Gee, I wonder if that’s going to come up again?’
Of course, The Visit features an infamous Shyamalan twist if you can even call it that. A good twist hits you in the back of the head and snaps the entire film into focus. A bad twist isn’t a twist at all. For viewers paying any kind of attention, The Visit has no twist. It’s been 16 years since Shyamalan blew our minds with The Sixth Sense. In the intervening years, either his writing’s gotten a lot duller, or we’ve gotten a lot smarter. I’m not sure which one.
Despite all these issues, The Visit does manage to produce more than a handful of tense moments out of its premise. It’s a film blissfully short on cheap jump scares and at times creates the kind of claustrophobic tension that reminds us why Shyamalan became popular in the first place. Some of these scenes are played for laughs, others for screams. Unfortunately it’s not always obvious which ones are played for which, leaving the film a bit of a tonal wreck.
The film’s performances are the only thing that keeps the film from completely falling apart at the seams. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould have genuine chemistry as brother and sister, and while they at times veer into the ‘wise beyond their years’ territory, they never feel like caricatures. Taking into account some of the wooden dialog they are forced to spit out, this is something of a substantial feat. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, are sufficiently unsettling- Dunagan always riding a razor thin line between saccharine sweetness and perverse malevolence. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the problems with this film are coming from behind the camera.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
The Visit fits in nicely with Blumhouse’s current roster of low budget thrillers, but this is very much a Shyamalan film. There are definitely glimmers of the filmmaker’s early successes, but they don’t seem to shine as bright. While there’s a substantial amount wrong with the film, it does represent a step in the right direction for the filmmaker. The Visit might not be particularly successful as a whole, but it’s a pleasant enough ride that might find you sliding towards the edge of your seat once or twice. Not being physically sick during a film might not be a high bar for a filmmaker, but its been a while since Shyamalan has made the cut. Here’s to hoping we continue to see things swing in this direction.