Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Premise: A pair of youngsters make a documentary of their first visit with their estranged grandparents but the older couple’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic.
What Works: The career of M. Night Shyamalan has seen dramatic highs and lows from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable to The Happening and The Last Airbender. With The Visit, Shyamalan withdraws from the grandiose concepts and epic stories he has been making to something much smaller and more manageable. In the process he has proven that his early successes were not a fluke and that he is capable of writing and directing entertaining and well-made motion pictures. The Visit comes at a time when the horror genre is steeped in domestic horror stories told in the found footage format. This movie is very much a part of that trend but Shyamalan does this kind of story well and The Visit plays like a well-executed episode of The Twilight Zone. A lot of Shyamalan’s work has concerned itself with folk legends and fairy tales and retold old campfire stories in contemporary settings. That is certainly the case in The Visit and the movie repurposes elements of the urban legend of the babysitter and the phone call and the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. That gives the movie the flavor of an older story but without feeling too familiar. The other recurring aspect of Shyamalan’s films has been a focus on family. Even his worst movies have generally taken care to create characters with some compelling family issues. In The Visit a recently divorced mother sends her son and daughter to see their grandparents, who the mother has been estranged from since before the kids were born. The sequences in which the kids deal with their fragmented family are generally quite good and the two young actors, Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge, have a likable rapport. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie play the grandparents and they are quite good. For the story to work it must be ambiguous as to whether these people are just old and neurotic or if there is something else wrong with them and the two actors play that ambiguity very well. Dunagan and McRobbie anchor the movie’s scares and the movie has an effectively spooky atmosphere.
What Doesn’t: The core of The Visit, from the time the children arrive at the grandparent’s homestead to the point at which the story is resolved, plays well. The trouble is that before and after those points the filmmakers seem lost. It takes a while for the story to get underway and the ending is especially belabored. It’s as if the filmmakers have no idea how to wrap up the movie. The Visit only runs ninety-four minutes and so it seems like a lot of this extra footage, especially in the ending, was added for the sake of padding the running time of the picture to a feature length. The two kids of The Visit are generally likable but they are a bit too witty for their own good. Their exchanges are sometimes inauthentic, much like the banter of a television sitcom. The dramatic moments play well but the comic elements don’t match the scenes of the children in danger. The Visit is a found footage movie and the film suffers from some of the familiar limitations of the form. As in most of these movies, the main problem is that it isn’t believable that the kids would be constantly shooting and documenting such mundane activities as eating breakfast or getting ready for bed. There is no reason why The Visit has to be a found footage movie. The story could just as easily have been told in a traditional dramatic style or a combination of dramatic movie making and found footage components as seen in Sinister. As a found footage picture, there is an awful lot in The Visit that is reminiscent of the original Paranormal Activity and a least a couple of sequences are taken wholesale from that movie.
Bottom Line: The Visit is a competently made little scare film. It does not reinvent the horror genre but writer and director M. Night Shyamalan accomplishes exactly what he set out to do and he’s done it well.
Episode: #560 (September 20, 2015)