The Visit (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
There is mold in the basement so Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are prohibited from going down there. The energetic siblings are visiting Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in rural Pennsylvania for five days which is special because it is the first time they will meet and get to know one another. A strained relationship between Mom (Kathryn Hahn) and grandparents had led to them to have no communication for fifteen years—for reasons unknown. Becca and Tyler hope to find out, not knowing what is in store for them in that farm house.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “The Visit” offers low-level terror, mid-level creativity, and a high-level of willingness to impress—which results in, for the most part, a mixed bag. Throughout the picture, humor courses in its veins which I found to be unusual because it is not meant to be a horror-comedy. Most of the time, in successful, straight-faced horror-thrillers, comedy is utilized to relieve tension. Here, it is used in two ways: as a means for us to get to know the siblings when they are together and as a distraction from the secret to be revealed in the final twenty minutes.
“What is really going on here?” is a question that discerning viewers will ask themselves more than thrice. We are given bones of information suggesting real possibilities. Pop Pop is very secretive about the shed. Nana sleepwalks at night in the nude. Pop Pop is caught “only cleaning” a shotgun when a spit-second before he realizes someone is watching, the muzzle of it is in his mouth. Nana stares at walls laughing uncontrollably. She claims she must laugh in order to keep something away. Is this a haunted house film? Is the place atop an Indian burial site? Have Nana and Pop Pop checked-in to the loony bin due to isolation after all these years? Are they simply suffering from dementia?
Strange events pile on top of one another as Tyler and Becca’s visit trickle away. After a big scare—real or false alarm—bold, red text is shown on screen displaying the day of the week—implying how many days left the two must endure in the house of horrors. I was reminded of bold European horror-thrillers like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”—which is perhaps the point because there is a playful but macabre tone underneath it all. Meanwhile, Nana insists on feeding the children cookies and other snacks when she wishes to steer a conversation away from certain topics. Is something in the food? Is Nana trying to fatten up her guests? (I thought about Kevin Connor’s “Motel Hell.”) Where are the neighbors? The possibilities are too delicious not to think about.
The film’s weak point is the hand-held, documentary style. Earlier, I mentioned that the film is willing to impress. This is a negative example of that trait. The found footage style is played out, tired, and rarely surprising these days. I got the impression that the writer-director hopes to reel in audiences—specifically younger audiences—this way. I found it insulting because I think Shyamalan is so creative and talented—despite a few disastrous projects and more than a few naysayers—that he is so much better than to succumb to this particular way of storytelling. He should have known this, too.
The smart decision to have taken is to mix hand-held camera techniques—maybe when Becca and Tyler question their subjects and when the two are clowning around, trying to get in each other’s nerves—and camera keeping still. The latter allows us the opportunity to be able to stare—and appreciate—the more terrifying images head-on instead of us having to struggle to make out what is so scary in the first place. The art of the camera staying still in horror movies has almost become a lost art—and it is a shame because the point of horror movies, in my opinion, is for the audience to be able to face fears rather than to be distracted from the experience.
“The Visit” earns a mild recommendation because there is more than a handful of creativity here. Futhermore, DeJonge and Oxenbould are entertaining as siblings. They each get their moment to shine; the former in the dramatic field and the latter in the comedic and uh… musical field. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing performers who are capable of range and natural charisma rather than just would-be child actors who just have to look cute or afraid. The movie is best seen outside of one’s bedroom after 9:30 p.m.