THE VISIT – The Review
M. Night Shyamalan sure knows what scares us. Dead people who can only be seen by a sad young boy. Mysterious crop circles suggesting something more frightening to come. And now with his latest film THE VISIT – a shed full of soiled adult diapers! It’s difficult to discuss an M. Night movie without referring to what disasters his last several films have been and the downward path his career has taken, but THE VISIT is his best movie in years. That’s not saying much, but it might be all the beleaguered director needs right now.
THE VISIT begins with single mom/Wal-Mart worker (Kathryn Hahn) revealing to her 15-year old daughter Becca (Olivia DeJonge), who’s filming her, that she ran away from home as a teen and has had no communication with her elderly parents since. She wants to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend and her parents have suddenly re-entered her life – offering to watch the kids for a week while she’s gone. Reluctantly mom sends Becca and 13-year old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) by train to the rural Pennsylvania farmhouse in which she grew up, hoping the visit will mend the rift with her estranged parents and provide the kids, abandoned by their dad years earlier, with some family bonding. Once they arrive, things seem pleasant enough with ‘Nana’ and ‘Pop Pop’ (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie). “Don’t leave your room after 9:30”, they’re told, which is good advice since Nana and Pop Pop are up to some bizarre behavior after sundown. Becca is a budding filmmaker and has conveniently decided to make a documentary about their week away so the entirety of THE VISIT is made up of the footage she shoots. That’s right, THE VISIT is M. Night’s addition to the found-footage genre (or is it a ‘mockumentary’? – I’m unclear on the difference in this case) because I guess he figures, with that famed ego of his, he’s got something new to add to the overused gimmick. Unfortunately for the audience, he doesn’t.
THE VISIT is briskly-paced, well-edited, and the director is clearly comfortable playing with the tools of the mockumentary format. His script is an episodic series of set-ups and pay-offs with Nana and Pop Pop exhibiting progressively peculiar behavior. A game of hide and seek under the porch takes a creepy turn when Nana suddenly joins in, scattering about like a rabid spider crab. Pop Pop takes the kids to town and is convinced a younger man is following him, resulting in a startling beat-down from the seemingly frail old coot. The scene from the trailer where Nana asks Becca to help clean the oven by climbing in it (“all the way inside”) happens twice and doesn’t go where you’re expecting , but it’s still giddy fun.
I had trouble with THE VISIT’s uneasy mix of horror and comedy. Much of the humor is at the expense of Nana and Pop Pop with cheap shots about the ‘hilarity’ of advancing age and senility. Young Tyler looks at the camera and performs improv rap several, painful times. Most of the horror is of the cheap jump-scare variety but there is one terrifyingly good performance at the center of THE VISIT. Deanna Dunagan (a Tony Award-winner) as Nana is amazing in the film, doing some subtle (and not-so-subtle) work with her voice and her face and her body language. Puking and shrieking and scratching the walls one moment, while calm and grandmotherly sweet the next, it’s a startling physical performance, complete with a peek at her withered bare bottom. The 75-year old actress is a bold standout and Nana is the best horror character of the year. Peter McRobbie is content to hold back, sometimes so much so that Pop Pop seems to be in some kind of daze or trance, until all Hell breaks loose near the end – it’s a good approach and works well in contrast to Nana. Less successful are the two young actors, forced to spout the grown screenwriter’s awkward version of a teen’s words. Kathryn Hahn is always likeable and makes the most of her limited screen time as Mom. The cinematography by Maryse Alberti is slick and filmic, perfectly lit with the golden hues one would expect from the rustic farm setting…. which sort of negates the premise that the whole thing is shot by a 15-year old on her camcorder!
Since this is an M. Night, there is a twist, but it’s not a game-changer and affects little of the action that preceded it, just sending the story in a slightly different direction. I wish Shyamalan had dialed the berserk level in THE VISIT up a bit more. It’s not for a moment dull but it never reaches the delirious heights I was hoping for, nor does it achieve anything like the so-bad-it’s-transcendent madness he accomplished with THE HAPPENING (still my favorite post-SIXTH SENSE M. Night). There’s one nasty-wicked scene when gramps comes at germophobe Tyler armed with those poopy Depends. It’s a stupid, gross bit, one that will have audiences screaming in revulsion and I wish there had been more moments like it.
2 1/2 of 5 Stars