Fewer modern filmmakers are as disappointing as M. Night Shyamalan. He started strong with THE SIXTH SENSE, arguably got even better at his craft with UNBREAKABLE, and then proceeded to do a swift and sustained cinematic wipeout for the past 15 years.
THE VISIT is good. It lacks the flashiness and giant twists Shyamalan is known for, and this is a big plus for the film. For once he is not concerned about yanking the rug out from under the audience. He actually takes some time to develop a sense of atmosphere, a sense of humor, and thankfully does not bring his retched god-complex into this film.
THE VISIT is a found-footage style horror film. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is 15 years old and an aspiring filmmaker. She and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are taking a week away from their mother (Kathryn Hahn) to meet their grandparents for the first time. When their mom was 19 something terrible happened at home, she left, and completely severed ties with both parents. Now reeling from her husband’s abandonment, and at the children’s encouragement, mom is taking a week’s vacation for the first time ever. It should be win-win for both sides of the dated feud, and the children will finally meet their grandparents which Becca plans to document.
Soon after the kids’ arrival the grandparents start acting…odd. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) wanders around at night: scratching at walls and crawling on all fours. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) explains this as “Sundowning,” a type of Alzheimer’s that only emerges after sundown. Pop Pop seems like the loving caretaker of his wife’s dwindling health until his behavior becomes slightly questionable too.
For most of the film it is just this: slightly odd. The children never feel in any serious danger as the grandparents never seem dangerous. They are just… odd. That is, until everything devolves and we find out that THE VISIT is actually a horror film and not a film about the declining mental health of seniors.
Most of the performances in the small cast are stellar. Hahn shines, as always, and is able to convey a lifetime of harboring a grudge, and the sadness behind that grudge, with a single stare into the camera. Oxenbould walks the line between being a sweet but obnoxious 13-year-old boy and being a tedious little brat. But both grandparents truly steal the show here. How Dunagan can make Nana simultaneously someone you want to embrace but also hold at an arm’s distance away is no small feat. Had she tilted the performance into comical or theatrical the film would have collapsed, but she never does.
This is not to say that THE VISIT is perfect. DeJonge never rises to the demands of playing Becca. She tries a little too hard to emote and articulate the big words spoken by Becca, and due to these struggles she never disappears into the role. The film’s handheld camera work is messy too. Not quite as difficult to follow as some found-footage films, THE VISIT is aided be certain static shots. Whenever the kids use a tripod or put the camera on a shelf it reminds you of how much you may be missing when the camera is jostling around. Also, certain character traits are introduced, forgotten, and then reintroduced when convenient. Tyler is supposed to be a germophobe, as Becca explains directly to the camera. Why would he then have a grand time playing outdoors and even under the house, rolling in the dirt? The lack of cohesion is rare, but it does occasional surface and remind us of the sloppy moments in the writing of the film.
Even though I did enjoy the film far more than I expected to, I can’t help but acknowledge the greater cultural suggestion of THE VISIT. Ultimately, the crux of all of the horror in the film is a fear of older people. Their odd behavior, their odd smells, and unique disorders. Without having the cultural undercurrent of discomfort with seniors this film would not work. The fact that the kids were right, and that there was plenty to be frightened of when spending time with old folks, means that the film is supporting these cultural fears. Nearly every horror film exploits a cultural bias we have in the name of creating terror and entertainment, but here it feels mean spirited.
Putting aside the biases of the film, the questionable camera work, and a single weak performance, THE VISIT works. It is not the Shyamalan film you may expect, but that is a very good thing. Have a little cinematic faith, and do go out and see this one.