Dog’s Movie House: “The Visit” A Return To Form For M. Night Shyamalan!
Howdy Folks! It’s The Kendog!
I have a great amount of admiration for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. Ever since “The Sixth Sense” exploded on the scene in 1999 I’ve been a fan of his slow burn, cinematic style. He’s fallen out of favor since his heyday in the 90s, with bombs like “The Happening” and “After Earth” on his resume. Apparently his solution is to venture into the world of low budget filmmaking, partnering with Blumhouse Studios (“Insidious: Chapter 3) to write and direct his own entry into the “found footage” horror genre. While I generally think most found footage films are dubious enterprises at best, I have to say that “The Visit” is one of the spookier horror films I’ve seen in a while and a good return to form for the talented Shyamalan.
“The Visit” tells the tale of 15-year old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two siblings who go to visit their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t seen her folks in over 15 years and as a result, the grandparents haven’t even seen their grandkids Becca is keen on the idea because it also gives their mother a chance to explore her relationship with a new boyfriend. Becca is also an aspiring filmmaker and uses the visit to film a documentary about her grandparents that will hopefully lead to a reconciliation between her mother and her grandparents.
But things quickly turn strange as soon as the visit begins and it soon becomes apparent that Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) have their share of somewhat disturbing issues. Nana has a disturbing habit of wandering around the house at night, sometimes sans clothes, while Pop Pop saves his dirty undergarments in his shed and believes people are following him. For the most part, these traits, while creepy, are harmless, and during their Skype conversations with their mother, everyone involved believes it’s just a symptom of old age. But as the week passes, things begin to take a more sinister turn and both Becca and Tyler realize that something is very, very wrong with their grandparents.
“The Visit” is a prime example of style over substance, but in a good way. I found myself hooked by Shyamalan’s storytelling style, completely absorbed in the atmosphere of the narrative at the expense of any of the story’s potential flaws. I’m sure they exist, as they do in any film that relies on the found footage conceit, but during the course of the film I found myself able to overlook them. Shyamalan builds the tension slowly, presenting plausible explanations for Nana and Pop Pop’s behavior. Pop Pop especially seems aware of Nana’s nocturnal problems and even sets some ground rules to keep the children safe during the night.
It helps that Shyamalan (the idiotic “The Happening” aside) has a gift when it comes to directing actors. The children in particular do fine work, providing some much needed levity as the tension ramps up. Some folks may have trouble with the kids when it comes to their dialogue, but I found refreshing and invigorating. Oxenbould in particular has some standout moments that really have nothing to do with the narrative: he’s an aspiring rapper whose freestyle rhymes left the audience I was with in stitches. Dejonge’s Becca comes off as very intelligent but also very believable. It’s amazing how much more effective a horror movie becomes when you have protagonists you, you know, actually care about.
Meanwhile, Dunagan is terrific as Nana, vacillating between sweet doting grandmother and frothing madwoman with terrifying swiftness with only minor changes in appearance. She is also responsible for one of the most effective jump scares I’ve ever seen in a movie, although in hindsight I probably should have seen it coming. She may be on of the most unnerving human monsters ever put to the big screen. McRobbie does equally fine work as Pop Pop, a man who, while dealing with his own problems, fights to keep from crumbling under the burden of caring for his ailing wife.
Of course, this being an M. Night film, there is a big third act reveal, but in this case the reveal seems quite organic to the storytelling. Again, in retrospect, I probably should have seen the “twist” coming, but again I was invested in the film to the extent that it came off as pleasantly unexpected. This leads to a tense, frightening finale that, unlike some of Shyamalan’s other work, actually does a pretty good job of sticking the landing. The confrontation between Becca and Nana in Nana’s bedroom is especially spooky.
“The Visit” isn’t perfect and most of the film’s imperfections can be laid at the feet of the found footage aesthetic. While the kids using two cameras is a nice touch, you get to the point when any reasonable individual would simply drop the camera and run like hell. It requires a suspension of disbelief that isn’t always easy to attain. I think an even scarier film could have been made if he’d used his standard excellent camera work rather then the found footage technique. Also, as smart and engaging as the kids are, Becca’s incessant babbling about documentary filmmaking techniques gets a little tiresome after awhile.
These are little nitpicks, however, and “The Visit” serves as a great example of a cinematic exercise in escalating terror. If you can stand a little shaky-cam action and don’t mind a couple of small narrative lapses then “The Visit” is likely to be one of the most terrifying good times you’re apt to have at the movies this year. 4 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!
“The Visit” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language.