Monday, September 14, 2015

'The Visit' review

M. Night Shyamalan's fall from grace has been one of the most fascinating and baffling stories of the last several years. Deemed "the next Spielberg" when he burst onto the scene in the late 90s with films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan went on to make some of the most hysterically awful movies ever. Lady in the Water, The Happening, and even The Last Airbender, which is the worst movie I've ever seen, were all Shyamalan productions that fell flat when they hit theaters, sending the director's reputation crashing to the ground. At a low point in the aftermath of the Will Smith vehicle After Earth, Shyamalan decided to use the $5 million paycheck from that movie to make a smaller, more intimate horror film that would hopefully bring his career back to life. And while The Visit is a tonally confused and somewhat bizarrely structured film, the sparks of promise that Shyamalan shows in this unnerving and sometimes downright terrifying found footage flick are more than enough to get me excited about what his future could hold. The Visit isn't the rip-roaring comeback that his most avid fans were hoping for, but it gets the director back on the right track.

When Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould)'s mother (Kathryn Hahn) was a teen, she got into a huge fight with her parents over her relationship with an older man, left, and never saw her parents again. Becca and Tyler have never seen their grandparents, but after fifteen long years, Nana and PopPop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) want to see their grandchildren for the first time. In the aftermath of a nasty split with her husband, their mom goes off on a cruise with her boyfriend while Becca and Tyler adventure to Pennsylvania to meet their grandparents for the very first time (all while Becca films a documentary film). Everything seems to be going well at first, but after a while, the kids start to notice some strange behavior. Their grandparents are a bit odd during the day, but they're straight-up insane after 9:30 PM, wandering around naked, scratching walls, etc. What is truly going on here? Are Nana and PopPop just senile elderly people, or is there something more sinister at play? If you've ever seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie before, you know the answer to that question.

We're on the cusp of Oscar season right now, and in the next few months, we'll see quite a few movies that are few better than The Visit. That's not really a question in my mind. Shyamalan's latest picture is a B-movie at best, and a tedious slog at worst. But when it's good, when it gets down and dirty and when it gets scary, I was truly stunned by how great it was. The mix of comedy, emotional drama and found-footage chills makes for a bizarre experience and one that you wouldn't expect from this film. There are some scenes that are side-splittingly funny and there are quite a few moments that will have you clutching your armrest, but at the same time, Shyamalan brings this emotional poignancy to it that strangely works at times (not always). In its base form, The Visit feels like an experimental picture- Shyamalan is pushing boundaries on tonal clashes, testing limits and simply seeing what all is going to work. And it doesn't always work, but he brings a lot of interesting stuff to the table.

The acting in The Visit is a mixed bag of oddly terrifying and ridiculously overdone. Olivia DeJonge carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film and her documentary storyline surprisingly works well. Meanwhile, her cinematic brother, Ed Oxenbould, is exceptionally good at being annoying. Oxenbould's Tyler is a wannabe rapper and it makes for some of the most cringe-worthy moments of the film. There's a bit of emotional subtlety to Tyler that makes him more interesting, but I still question Shyamalan's decision to make the character so incredibly grating.

The performances from the grandparents are very interesting to say the least. I wouldn't say that they're "good" in the traditional sense of the word, but they're sufficiently spooky at times and they fit Shyamalan's tone to perfection. Peter McRobbie brings a bit of normality to PopPop, as we definitely don't see him doing as many weird things in the early goings of the film. So when the terror goes down, it's even more scary to see PopPop turn into a lunatic. To contrast that, Deanna Dunagan's Nana is alarming from the first time that you see her. Just take one look at her and you know there's something up. Her performance is so stilted and so well-oiled that it becomes all the more effective in generating scares as the film goes on.

The comedic elements in The Visit work at times, but for me, the horror stuff was what really struck a chord and made me enjoy this film. For the most part, this film is perfectly executed to generate the most suspenseful and scary sequences possible. There are very few calm moments in The Visit, mostly because of the way that the film is structured. The film begins on Sunday Morning and moves onto go through Monday Morning, Monday Night, Tuesday Morning and so on. Basically, with every scene, it starts out normally and then something weird happens. That formula is followed throughout with few exceptions, but it escalates well as the film goes on.

But despite the structural issues and tonal inconsistencies, something about The Visit consistently got under my skin. I think that it has something to do with Shyamalan's ambition and the way that he shifts away from basic haunted house and found footage cliches. I knew the basic twist going in and I still was wondering what exactly was going on with the grandparents. The hints are there, but no easy answer is given. And the funny thing about it is that you can see every jump scare coming, and yet, you fall for it every time. That's the sign of an effective horror film to me. You're being fed the bait, but you still bite down.

With the scare factor, Shyamalan is back on the right track. That's not a question in my mind anymore. But what about everything else? In all honesty, this movie still falls short in many other places. The basic story is compelling, but that strong emotional angle that the filmmakers try to pull at the end doesn't work, and in the aftermath of the film's disturbingly violent and intense conclusion, it just felt out of place. In addition to that, the film's basic structure hinders the dramatic tension, as you pretty much know what will happen in each scene. It drags some of the energy out of the scene and I did feel quite bored at times during the film.

And yet, for what it is, The Visit is a more-than-satisfying horror film and the first step in what I think will be a big comeback for M. Night Shyamalan. Many elements are still missing or don't work well, but there's so much that's good about this film that I was left more thrilled than bored. The third act of the film is tremendously chilling and if Shyamalan can make more movies that work consistently on that level, I would be so, so happy. He will make another great movie someday, but for now, The Visit is a promising start, a B movie that doesn't explain too much, that is both terrifying and entertaining, and can often be a perfect blend of thrills, screams and nervous laughs.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, The Wrap, Screen Rant, Flickering Myth, Joblo

1 comment:

  1. The end scene of the boy rapping is so funny I can watch it over and over and would like to memorize it and perform it for my kids. The movie is weird but it's supposed to be. The Yahtzee scene is so funny and scary at the same time. The boy going nuts on pop pop too. The oven scene made me turn my head. What a riot and sad as hell that they murdered the real grandparents. .but it pisses me off that the father totally abandoned his kids. Why would he do that. Oh happens to cole too...maybe Shamalyan was abandoned by his dad.