Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Material including Terror, Violence and some Nudity, and for brief Language
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie & Kathryn Hahn
M. Night Shyamalan is a perfect example of a filmmaker who peaked too early in his career. Those who weren’t alive when his big three films (SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS) saw release might not understand just how big of a deal this writer/director was at the time. I distinctly remember, Shyamalan was huge. He was touted as the next Hitchcock thanks to his quiet building suspense and original screenplays. Everyone was stoked to see THE VILLAGE (including myself) and then something happened where his ego grew too big and his scripts went sour. Since 2004, Shyamalan has struggled to write or direct a halfway decent film (going so far as to ruin a live-action version of a beloved anime). THE VISIT might not rank quite as high as M. Night’s first three big films, but it’s a definite step up from what he’s been churning out for the past decade. This handheld horror-comedy is a fun return to horrific form.
Rebecca and her brother, Tyler, are visiting their long-lost grandparents for a week. Rebecca has decided to film the experience as a documentary (seeing as her mom didn’t leave on the best of terms). At first, Nana and Pop Pop seem awkward, but hit it off well with their two grandchildren. As the week goes on, things get strange. Pop Pop is hiding something in the shed. Nana begins laughing at the walls and sleepwalking naked. Rebecca and Tyler grow concerned that there’s something seriously wrong and they might not live to see the end of their trip. Old people! Am I right?
The first thing that really struck me about THE VISIT is how good the cast is. These are unknowns (save for Kathryn Hahn in the side role as the children’s mother) and all seem to perfectly fit their roles. Olivia DeJonge blends right into the part of Rebecca. She’s a weird child and obsessed with filmmaking to a degree where she’s throwing out a lot of technical terms that even most adults won’t fully grasp. There were points where I was thinking ‘Wait, what did she just say?’ Shyamalan’s weird dialogue finds a place in this character, but isn’t overdone to an annoying degree. She’s an enjoyable teenage protagonist on a mission to make a serious documentary about forgiveness. Her brother, played by Ed Oxenbould, is far more of an obnoxious comic relief character (using pop star names in place of swear words). However, he’s not overdone to an annoying degree either. This is just a typical kid being a kid. Finally, there’s Nana and Pop Pop, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie. I don’t want to say too much about their performances, but they balance the right amount of funny and creepy.
Seeing as this is a found footage movie (M. Night’s first foray into the subgenre), THE VISIT does suffer from the usual handheld tropes. This includes shaky camera work that might cause those with motion sickness to close their eyes a few times. There are also a couple of cheap scares with Nana suddenly popping up in front of the camera. Of course, there are points where you wonder why the kids would bother filming this stuff at all. However, Shyamalan actually offers an excuse in this being a would-be documentary put together by a teenage filmmaker. This offers a couple of good jokes about her being a tad pretentious and going as far as to tell her brother to let a tree-swing “organically swing” for a shot. A remarkable amount of effort is put into fleshing out these characters, much more than you typically see in found-footage horror flicks. This includes interviews and little behind-the-scenes interactions. In this sense, THE VISIT reminded me a bit of 2008’s underrated and terrifying HOME MOVIE.
From SIGNS onward, Shyamalan has had a weird sense of humor in his movies. While I felt that worked in SIGNS, the rest of his filmography hasn’t quite found a way to balance that out with his ambitious (mostly misguided) ideas. THE VISIT manages to execute that quirky sense of humor with horror in a way that had my audience simultaneously screaming and laughing. What I especially loved was the final third of this film, where everything that came off as goofy and comedic in the first two-thirds turns into something far darker. The finale may get a little over-the-top in places, but it’s a satisfying conclusion to a most unusual horror flick.
THE VISIT is the biggest surprise that I’ve had so far this year. If you had told previously told me that M. Night would make another solid horror movie, I probably would have laughed in your face and sarcastically said: “Yeah, that will be the day.” His latest film balances a quirky sense of humor with a real sense of horror. The film gets pretty insane about halfway through and doesn’t let up from that point on. An atmosphere of slow-burning unease combined with oddball laughs make for a hugely entertaining time at the movies. Though THE VISIT might not be perfect (suffering from typical handheld horror clichés and a bit of Shyamalan’s weird dialogue), this is a spooky return to form. The big twist is that Shyamalan has made a good movie again!