So, I think most of us are aware of M. Night Shyamalan’s record when it comes to writing/directing satisfying movies. Started off super strong right out of the gates (The Sixth Sense), stayed strong with his sophomore effort (Unbreakable), lost a little traction with a few silly ideas but basically kept us interested and scared with his third (Signs), jumped the shark with his whole “I have to have a crazy plot twist” compulsion with the fourth one (The Village) and kind of slid downhill from there for the next few (to be fair–I’ve actually heard some positive feedback on Lady in the Water since some time has passed but I’ve never actually seen it and can’t comment). We weren’t sure if he could do it again and everyone was bummed at the potential that seemed to have just dissipated into nothingness after those early knockouts.
It seemed like things were turning around a little bit with his mostly well-received television project “Wayward Pines,” but a TV show is not the same as a movie, you have more time to develop a story and characters, and unravel a mystery. With The Visit, we were going to see if he could come back from the atrocities that were The Happening and The Last Airbender. Did he manage to put those behind him?
Oh yeah. Shit yeah. In spades.
Just the Facts Ma’am:
The Visit is the story of two children whose mother is estranged from her parents (their grandparents). When those grandparents write and ask for a week to spend with the kids, she allows them to go so she can enjoy a much needed cruise with her new-ish boyfriend. The kids have never met their grandparents and they’re excited to get to know them. They catch a train out to the lonely house in the country where their mom grew up and are met by the old folks at the train station.
Once back at the house, Nana and Pop-Pop’s behavior starts to become concerning to the two kids (a teenage girl and her 12 or 13 year old brother–who is a charming smart aleck). The grandparents’ moods seem to swing, gently at first–but increasingly further and further away from normal as the week wears on. Soon enough, their behavior gets downright disturbing and possibly even dangerous. Skype calls between the kids and their mom, doesn’t seem to yield much relief as she just assures them it’s just old people being eccentric. The girl, who is filming all of this as a documentary for her mom, hoping for a reconciliation between said mother and grandparents, keeps shooting everything and we are treated to a blossoming nightmare.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly:
I really liked pretty much everything about this movie.
The story is told through the documentary, as a found footage film (which is a subgenre that works for me), but without most of the shaky cam that less experienced and confident film makers sometimes use to mask flaws or create tension with perceived confusion. Here, the footage is clear and bright, very rarely grainy and very rarely shaky. We see everything that we’re meant to see and it puts together this growing picture of what’s really happening
and it’s scary as hell.
The reason it is so scary is because, as we all say ad nauseam, if we don’t care about the characters we’re not scared. In this film we really do care about the two kids and it’s a real credit to the actors playing them. The girl never feels like a mopey, Bella Swann type teenage angst monger. She has some reason to be, but she really tries to be upbeat and positive. We get to learn some of her internal struggles later and that’s handled deftly, both by Shyamalan and by the kids (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould). They feel very natural and have great brother/sister chemistry and when events start suggesting they might be in grave danger, we are worried for them.
Massive props also must be given to the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) who go balls to the wall and hold nothing back. Their performances at times teeter on silly but, for me, that’s what ups the terrifying. Sometimes silly outrageous behavior is a sign of a frighteningly fractured mind and even though you laugh, it’s a nervous laugh because you don’t know when that dog is gonna stop playing and bite your fingers off.
All of the cast was great including the always solid Kathryn Hahn as the kids’ mother. The location was also very remote and spooky making you feel the kids’ isolation and total lack of control. The house was both gorgeous and creepy like any good haunted house should be (haunted by ghosts? Not telling, but it felt like a haunted house either way).
I really have no complaints about this movie. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to find something to critique it’s that the very ending might have gone to an unnecessary place. There were two places where it felt like the story ended and the first one might have been better to just end with but honestly, I don’t think the ending really hurt the movie, I’m just saying that if Night had gone with the earlier end point and left it there, it would’ve worked just as well, maybe a smidge better.
Recommend or Rectify:
This is a HUGE recommend for me. I thought it was scary, I was on the edge of my seat. There was humor but it was not a horror comedy (two friends of mine told me, before I went to see it, that it was a comedy as much as horror and I absolutely disagree with this one thousand percent). A really big return for M. Night Shyamalan, I hope he realizes with this one that he doesn’t have to throw mind bending twists at us to keep us coming back–just give us characters we care about and a cool, scary story. I can’t wait to see this one again.
Night of the Living Podcast
A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.