Posted by Holly
Since almost the moment his instant classic The Sixth Sense was released, M Night Shyamalan’s reputation has been on the decline. Reaction to his films in the past handful of years has been mixed at best (The Village) and an absolute critical disaster at worst (The Last Airbender). His name has grown to be synonymous with hokey, over the top twist endings and disappointment. Still, when advertisements for The Visit began popping up everywhere, I couldn’t help but be compelled to check it out and see what he might bring to the table.
Did The Visit disappoint? It certainly doesn’t have the depth or emotional resonance of his stronger early material, such as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but it is an entertaining and solid horror film, with a great infusion of comedy.
The Visit is told through the point of view of Becca, a young and aspiring filmmaker, who is working on a documentary about her trip to meet her grandparents for the first time in her life. Her intention, however, is to facilitate and document the mending of her mother and grandmother’s relationship after a harsh falling out before she was born. Once she arrives at the remote house with her brother, things initially seem perfect; however, things quickly begin to deteriorate as her grandparents’ strange behavior begins to come into focus. As the week goes on, what starts as peculiar becomes more and more ominous.
I’ve always thought M Night Shyamalan had a knack for dark comedy that wasn’t fully appreciated by some reviewers. It was probably the only thing I liked about Signs, and always something I enjoyed even in his lesser works. My favorite thing about this movie, and what I ultimately think makes it work as an overall film, is the fact that it is very much a dark comedy in some respects. That is not to say that it’s not scary, though; in fact, I would argue that the humor injected throughout the film actually makes the scares more potent. With the film set up this way, it actually creates a very tense atmosphere, where the viewer feels a sense of anxiety during the set up of any scene – will it be a set up for a scare or a joke? It’s not always obvious which way a scene will go, which provides the tension needed to make the scares eerier, and the jokes land successfully.
Becca is actually a fairly good treatment for a female lead character. She’s allowed to have complexity in her feelings, and be flawed, while still having the audience’s sympathy. She’s a bit selfish, and a lot pretentious, but those things are more closely linked to her identity as a teenage filmmaker, not as a girl. We see her enacting some of her own hypocrisy in urging her mother to forgive her grandmother for their falling out, even while she cannot forgive her own father for leaving her family; still, you can’t help but sympathize with her efforts. Ultimately, the film is very much centered around the mending of three generations of women, as Becca’s brother and grandfather seem to play more minor roles in the movement of the story. This is the skeleton of what might be a touching and heartwarming story, turned on its head and skewed to horrific effect.
My main criticism of this film would perhaps be the perspective on mental health, particularly in the elderly. Sundowning is explicitly referenced, but clearly there must be something in addition to that for the kind of behavior exhibited here. It just feels a little bit unfair to perpetuate a fear of mental illness, especially something akin to dementia. The grandparent characters in this film are not only old and mentally ill, they are obviously cruel and violent on top of that.
As for the twist? It doesn’t really go the traditional Shyamalan route of having a hugely shocking plot twist – in fact, the twist at the end of this film is a much more traditional, straightforward horror one. It doesn’t really change much about the rest of the film, nor will it make you rethink every little detail along the way. It makes sense within the context of the story, and it certainly makes the children’s ordeal more horrific, but the narrative doesn’t hinge on it being a great surprise. That’s actually kind of a relief, and allows for a much simpler enjoyment of the film.
So while this isn’t a perfect film, nor does it reach close to the high points of Shyamalan’s career, it’s actually a pretty good horror film. It’s entertaining, funny, and has several female characters of substance. I’d recommend giving this one a go – I’d even say give it a theater watch, as experiencing the twists and turns with a crowd provided an extra layer to the experience.
Rating: 3 out of 5. A solid comeback piece for Shyamalan!
Violence level: Medium range. There are explicit stabbings, some things that are implied but not outright shown, and several dead bodies shown after the fact.
Scariness level: I’ll admit, the hide and seek scene had me squirming in my seat a little. I also might never feel comfortable in a game of Yahtzee again.
Bechdel test: Very much passes. Becca and her grandmother speak frequently and make up a large portion of the movie’s interactions, often talking about her mother.
Mako Mori test: Becca’s ambition to become a filmmaker, and to reconcile her grandmother and mother.