A divorced mother of two (Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t seen or talked to her parents in 15 years. After all this time, they contact her online asking to see their grandchildren (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), whom they have never met. She reluctantly agrees on her children’s insistence.
Her children are a cute sibling pair, natural and appropriately childish. Tyler is charismatic and naive, free style rapping with a train conductor and purporting to “sext” with classmates. He desperately wants to live up to a masculine stereotype that he does not truly embody.
Becca is verbose and dramatic with her words as she narrates her way through exposition like a quick knife-stroke through butter. She has recently armed herself with cameras, hoping to tape their week-long visit in a style as close to a professional documentary as she can muster.
Shymalan channels an inexperienced auteur in Becca. Early interactions are light and bubbly as she sets the scene for her “documentary.” It also serves a meta purpose in its intended humor. She explains that with a camera you need to build tension and make people want to imagine what is lingering just beyond the frame. It sounds very much like Shymalan is whispering in the kids ear. Not too subtly, she is Shymalan’s voice throughout the film.
The rule of Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop’s (Peter McRobbie) house is simple: don’t leave the bedroom after 9:30. Reasonable as the rule is, the purpose for it is readily apparent, and it is a strange one. Nana isn’t well. On the first night, Becca wants another cookie from downstairs, but it is well after curfew. She starts down the stairs, only to find Nana projectile vomiting uncontrollably.
This is night one.
The Visit tries to be the perfect blend of horror and comedy. Most traditional horror comedy films lean more heavily on one than the other. Shaun of the Dead, for example, is a brilliant comedy, but it is low on the scares. It is a comedy with horror characteristics. This film wants to be a pure horror comedy, not one with mere inklings of the other.
To its credit, The Visit delivers with laughs. At times they are odd laughs from some grotesque imagery, but they are laughs nonetheless. The movie doesn’t scream comedy–it sure isn’t marketed as one–but it has its own fiendish brand of humor.
As for scares, we get a mixed bag. In the first half of the film, scares exist in the form of your standard handheld camera jump scare. The camera swivels around empty scenery until you’ve had enough, and then something pops into frame. These cheap scares hold back the film, but, thankfully, the second half of the film heightens to something much better. The creepiness of the grandparents culminates with well-placed cross-cutting between two simultaneous events that helps build the tension to a boiling point.
What does work well in the first half of the film is how humor is used after moments of high tension. There is a rhythm to the beats. Night descends, tension rises as we all realize what is going to happen. The kids find some reason to go out of there room, and there is some strange imagery or a jump scare. We then cut to the next day or moments after the event, and there is a joke or some self-aware nod to the fact that there was just a jump scare. Shymalan uses the audience’s awareness of the genre tropes to poke fun at them, and this is one thing that is truly novel about the film.
There is a lot of heart to The Visit, both from its narrative and its director–whose presence is ever-felt throughout the movie. The children characters, as they progress through making their documentary, open up to each other in very human ways. The struggles of childhood and growing up essentially without a father is evident when they are on screen without the creepy grandparents present.
The meta-level of the film is also interesting. The documentary angle allows Shymalan’s voice to be heard as he weaves his usual thriller story on the surface. It is a unique way to make minor comments about film making and how it can be a catharsis of sorts. The children making the film also serves as a good narrative device to motivate the children to find out more about their grandparents and their persistent problems, which amplifies the tension.
No one can go into an M. Night Shymalan movie anymore without at least considering the possibility for a twist ending. If you somehow go into The Visit without any thought to what a twist might be, then the turn might just sneak up on you. Otherwise, it isn’t hard to guess at a twist through premise alone. Still, as opposed to his earlier works, knowing the twist–if you even want to call it a twist–doesn’t ruin the movie for you. Even if you know the twist, you can still rely on dramatic irony to come through with some cheeky laughs once it is revealed.
This film is bumpy at times. It is inconsistent with its horror faculties, being somewhat repetitive with its use of tension and jump scares until the very end. However, there is enjoyment to be had with laughing along with Shymalan as he uses horror cliches and then diffuses them with children making jokes. It is a mainstream horror film that never wants to take itself too seriously and is quick to give a wink to horror snobs that see a cheapening of true suspense in mainstream horror.
I was wary going into this film, but I also thought that it looked like The Visit could be a return to form for Shyamalan. I’m glad to say that the film took me by surprise. I laughed. I was scared. And the disturbing culmination of events was downright eye-grabbing. Shymalan did the found-footage genre justice: not making it inconceivable or a tired, cheap knockoff, but making it a finished project. And a polished project at that.
As always, thanks for reading!
The Visit is currently available to stream on Amazon Video here.
Have you seen The Visit? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)