M. Night Shyamalan has had one of the harshest popularity drop-offs of any name brand movie director. THE SIXTH SENSE got him a couple films worth of “could he be a new Spielberg?” goodwill before the love affair ended non-amicably. He rubbed many of us the wrong way by becoming increasingly self-aggrandizing as his movies got more and more misguided, arguably culminating in the ridiculous LADY IN THE WATER, where the villain is a pompous film critic and Shyamalan himself plays a writer whose work is destined to inspire the next Martin Luther King. Of course, most people limit their critique to making fun of the twist endings he used to do and xenophobically refusing to expend a regular amount of effort to learn his last name. (SHAW-MUH-LAWN, guys. Fewer syllables than Tarantino or Kurosawa. You can learn it.)
These days he doesn’t even get a fair shot. AFTER EARTH, for example, did not deserve the disdain it got. But I think we’re fair in assuming he’s not gonna turn out to be a great director for the ages.
THE VISIT is not a rebirth of the once promising writer-director, but it’s a positive step. It shows an awareness I didn’t know he had. Instead of floundering with ambitions far beyond his abilities he’s decided to slum it in the middling subgenre of the Jason Blum produced found footage/fake documentary horror movie (see also: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1, 2, 3, 4 and GHOST DIMENSION, THE BAY, AREA 51, THE GALLOWS, UNFRIENDED 1 and 2). While the format is usually used as a workaround for filmmaking competence and professional actors, Shyamalan treats it as a creative challenge. It never seems like laziness, it seems like a puzzle. Can he use this “kid with handheld camera” bullshit and still get in some of his favorite things: great performances by young actors, some beautiful shots, some sadness and sentiment?
Yes. It’s also full of his humor, which in my opinion is usually a bad thing, but here some of it works. The young stars do a great job with their very stylized, precocious dialogue, meant to show that they’re very smart kids, but also making it stand out from other fakumentaries where the actors mostly banter in their own words. For me it alternated between cute characterization and annoying self indulgence as the girl talks all high falutin about her documentarian philosophy.
It’s the story of young Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a brother and sister sent to stay for a week with their grandparents (Deanne Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), who they’ve never met because of a mysterious falling out with their mom (Kathryn Hahn). Becca is an aspiring filmatist who decides to make a documentary about the mystery of what happened, thinking it could heal the relationship.
Some of the details seem a little off to me (why would the grandparents they never met already be called “Nana and Pop Pop”?) but there’s a fun and darkly humorous escalation as the kids notice the usually lovely old folks doing increasingly strange and scary things on occasion. It mostly happens at night when they don’t think they’re being watched, but my favorite is the scene where Grandma unexpectedly joins an under-the-house hide-and-seek game with the kids and enthusiastically crawls around in the dirt, growling, with her hair in her face like a J-horror ghoul.
I wouldn’t say this is a truly scary movie, but it does deal with a legitimate childhood fear of old people, staying in other people’s houses and feeling like you’re supposed to be close to someone because you’re related but you really don’t know them. And I can’t think of another horror movie off hand that deals with that type of stuff. There can’t be too many of them.
One reason found footage movies have become such a thing is because it’s easy for novice filmmakers to get naturalistic performances out of rookie actors by having them improvise the dialogue, and be allowed to talk to the camera, and just let the camera keep rolling without having to worry about setting up again, because who gives a shit, it’s supposed to look like some garbage home video anyway, not a real movie made by professionals for paying moviegoers to be satisfied with. Shyamalan discards that, using very scripted dialogue and still managing to get very good performances out of this cast. It’s even more impressive now that I realize both of the kids are Australian, doing American accents that fooled me.
There is, yes, a pretty good twist, and the climax at least has a novel way to gross us out, even though I didn’t need that in my life, thanks alot Shyamalan. The mom, who they Skype with throughout the visit, is very sympathetically played by recognizable professional actress Hahn. She actually has an emotional arc like a character in a real, non-found-footage movie. I dare say Shyamalan managed to transcend the format a little.
But there is one major drawback that I feel I have an ethical responsibility to warn you about, and that is…
(Pause for a moment to consider what it is you think would be the major problem in this found footage horror movie. Can you guess it?)
…the freestyle raps. Okay, you guessed it. Maybe that was too obvious.
That’s bad-comedy-Shyamalan talking there. He made the decision to have Tyler’s cutesy character quirk be that he loves freestyle rapping. I’ve blocked the memory out of my mind, but I’d guess there are three or more cringe-inducing scenes where the kid does his worse-than-Bulworth a capella raps, and the characters have to act like they think he’s good. For hilarity purposes the rhymes are always about how awesome he is with women (kids say the darndest things!) and then he calls someone a ho, and Becca verbally objects to his misogyny.
I actually feel bad for the kid, because it’s cool that he’s in a pretty good movie, but obviously he can never watch it after he gets older, or he’ll feel a deep shame in the pit of his stomach that will chew on his soul until he loses the light in his eyes forever and stumbles through adulthood as an empty space covered in a thin shell of regrets. This is partly due to the painful lack of rhythm, but mainly the racial uncomfortableness of a little towheaded white kid talking in “rapper voice” and ebonics about what a kid like that thinks rappers are supposed to talk about. He’s a kid, he didn’t know any better, but there were adults there that failed in their duties as guardians.
WHICH IS WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT. Holy shit. Anyway, as we can say about so many of the horror movies now, other than the freestyle rapping it’s not bad.