The Visit (****)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Oliva DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan
WHEN reviewing M. Night Shyamalan’s latest feature it’s hard not to mention his recent fall from grace – once heralded by some critics as the new Hitchcock for his work on films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs; more recently however his stock has been pretty low, following a string of cinematic turkeys and box-office flops. Films like Another Earth, The Last Airbender and the truly terrible (and mind-numbly dull) The Happening had suggested the writer/director had lost his way.
So to say I was rather sceptical about his latest feature would be a bit of an understatement, a found footage movie that documents two young children visiting their grandparents for the first time. I’m not a huge fan of the found footage genre, don’t get me wrong there’s been some great ones of the years- The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast and Cloverfield, to name but a few; but I just think the novelty factor has run its course. It’s become nothing more than a gimmick, particularly one that’s overused within the horror genre.
This film’s gimmicky premise sees the two siblings documenting their trip to meet their grandparents for the first time while their mother goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. Becca (Olivia DeJonge), the eldest of the two is an aspiring filmmaker (of course she is) and wants to document proceedings for her documentary. She hopes the trip will lead to her mother reconciling with her parents after years of silence; but the two children find themselves in the middle of something they don’t understand and can’t quite comprehend. Creeped out by the erratic behaviour of their elderly relatives; but for their mother’s sake remaining polite-putting their grandparents bizarre actions down to their ailing health.
The Visit was much better than I’d expected, it’s wonderfully creepy and genuinely scary; but it’s also really funny- admittedly the humour is pitch-black, but I guarantee you’ll laugh as much as you scream. Don’t get me wrong it’s no cinematic classic, nor is it a triumphant, flag-waving return to form for Shyamalan. It’s all rather low-key and understated, reminding me of all the things I liked about his early work; particularly Unbreakable, which I think is a criminally underrated movie. Everything about the film is stripped back, the writing and visuals are simple (yet effective) and there’s none of the expected tropes we’ve come to expect from his work.
The performances are fantastic, particularly Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan who play the children’s grandparents. Their characters’ Pop Pop and Nana switch from the stereotypical doting grandparents to something much more dark and sinister so quickly and effortlessly. It just amplifies the film’s dark and unsettling tone. Both Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould hold their own against their older co-stars, but I’ve got to admit I did find Ed Oxenbould’s character Tyler slightly annoying; he’s just a little too cocky and self-assured for my likening and his repeated attempts at rapping just got on my nerves (maybe that’s just me though).
What I really liked about the film was how it used all the tropes and conventions within the found footage genre; it understands the rules for this type of film: IE why are they filming this and how did they get that footage. So often when a film is sold as a found-footage movie, it’s a way for the director and producers to excuse their low-budget- last year’s truly abysmal horror schlock-fest The Pyramid comes instantly to mind; but Shyamalan has done his homework and I never found myself questioning the concept throughout the film.
Like you’d expect within any horror movie it has a few cheap scares, particularly one where Deanna Dunagan’s character quietly prowls through the house at night; but more often the premise allows the director to slowly build the tension, in a similar way to Michael Haneke and it just makes everything much more effective. A scene early on, where a simple game of hide and seek goes horribly wrong, perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Admittedly there’s still a slight twist in the film’s final act (it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan movie without one), but it doesn’t feel as contrived as we’ve seen before from the director. There are plenty of red herrings thrown in to deliberately throw you off the scent, at times I felt like the film was hinting at witchcraft and alien invasion, with nods to Invaders from Mars, invasion of the Body Snatchers and even Roald Dahl’s The Witches; but the film’s final revelation is so glaringly obvious, it doesn’t really feel like a twist at all.
This is the director’s lowest budget feature to date and reportedly he used his fee from his work on After Earth to self-produce this project and it seems to have really paid off. Over recent years I’ve started to refer to the director as M. Night Shyaliadingdong (truly a mouth-full), because I just thought he’d really lost the plot, particularly as a writer and disappeared up his own arse.
After Earth was just so dull and I really hated The Happening, that scene where Mark Wahlberg talked to a plant just went on for an eternity and can never be forgotten; when he wrote himself as the character who saved mankind in The Lady in the Water, it was just a self-indulgent step too far for me; but I’m genuinely pleased to say welcome back M. Night Shyamalan, it’s been a long time coming, but The Visit is really good and I’m hoping for more of the same in the future.