M. Night Shyamalan has copped a lot of criticism in the previous years, some of it warranted, but most of it an overreaction to his missteps. Granted, The Last Airbender, After Earth, and Lady in the Water were particularly bad movies, right alongside the laughable The Happening which was even trashed by it’s lead actor at one point. Though it’s hard to fault Shyamalan’s sense and feel for an effective atmosphere, one which wraps tightly around the context of the film and keeps it from Razzies territory no matter how bad the inevitable twist is. The Director’s latest outing, The Visit, continues that knack for atmosphere, with a thick tension in the air at just the right times. The the most part, it’s a return to form for Shyamalan, and one which fits much comfortably in his good pile (along with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs), rather than his bad.
The Visit is led by two precocious kids (Olivia DeJonge as Becca, and Ed Oxenbould as her younger brother Tyler) who willingly unburden their mother (Kathryn Hahn) for a few days so she can have fun on a luxury cruiser, while they go to spend the weekend with their estranged grandparents, whom they have never met before (and evidently, have never even seen photos of before). It’s not exactly the fun getaway that springs to mind for two very young kids, but Becca is entertaining herself by letting her inner-amateur Director out and making a documentary about the whole reunion, complete with a quest to find out why her mother and grandparents cut communication long ago.
Making Becca a budding film Director is a smart move by Shyamalan’s, allowing him to run into the same lane as the found-footage genre but carve a path out that’s just for himself. It also gives him a platform to introduce some of his most effective comedy spliced into a thriller to date, something he has never been particularly good at. Most of the intentional humour comes from Tyler and the film’s satire of cultural appropriation (the boy is an aspiring rapper who drops some of the most cringe-worthy, but strangely endearing, freestyles at random times) but there are other parts in the film which are unintentionally hilarious, often those that are meant to be imbued with the most terror.
The Visit is (kind of) scary though. It’s not as chilling as The Sixth Sense, but there are moments when tension dances around in such a rhythmic, hypnotic pattern that you can’t help but be sucked into the film and then spat out when the ‘jump’ moments occur. These scares obviously need to come from somewhere, and having grandma (Deanna Dunagan) and Grandpa (Peter McRobbie) go through what seems like terrifying psychological outbursts (nana explicit, pop-pop implicit) seems like the best approach Shyamalan could have taken.
Although, in the process of having these two elderly people terrify the life out of the two teenagers, Shyamalan – perhaps unintentionally – plays into a very real stigma against neurodegenerative brain disorders, and more specifically Sundowning Syndrome – which is a very real, very terrible occurrence in patients with Alzheimer’s.
The peculiar behaviours exhibited by Nana and Pop-Pop are sensationalised versions of very real, very possible symptoms, and while this may complicate any sort of deeper meaning in The Visit, it is at least a refreshing approach to what could easily have been yet another film about demonic possession. The fact that Shyamalan isn’t afraid of leaving things with a bunch of questions marks and avoiding the supernatural strengthens the overall story he is telling here, further cemented with solid acting from all involved; especially the kids, who start out almost intolerable but are written with such singularity and nuance that they become some of the best characters an M. Night Shyamalan film has ever seen.
Many of the choices don’t make much sense towards the end, but saving all the intensity for a breathless finish somehow makes all that patience-testing worth it. In addition, Shyamalan gets his big twist out of the way well ahead of the ending, which provides context for earlier events and makes subsequent events all the more suspenseful, as the film steamrolls towards a satisfying final act.
Between this and The Taking of Deborah Logan (also a found footage style film), are we beginning to see a rise in grandparent horror as opposed to the age-old creepy possessed kid horror? Both are good movies so you never know; this trend might catch on.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 94 min
The Visit is screening in Australian cinemas now