A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2015


2015, PG-13, 96 mins.


Kathryn Hahn as Mother  /  Ed Oxenbould as Tyler Jamison  /  Benjamin Kanes as Dad  /  Peter McRobbie as Pop-Pop  /  Olivia DeJonge as Rebecca Jamison  /  Deanna Dunagan as Nana

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

At this monumentally low point in writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s career…there’s nowhere for him to go but up.   

It’s astounding to ponder that, nearly twenty years ago, Shyamalan was once considered a Hollywood wonderkid and the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock.  THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS kind of reinforced this very notion.  Then came a series of progressively and increasingly misguided artistic misfires like THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, and (uuggh) THE LAST AIRBENDER that all but destroyed his initial reputation for being a consummate and fairly masterful cinematic craftsman.  Recent efforts – like the sci-fi action thriller AFTER EARTH – were more disposable and forgettable than wretched, but it was abundantly clear that Shyamalan was still desperately searching for his lost filmmaking mojo.   

THE VISIT perhaps represents Shyamalan’s finest attempt in a decade-plus to generate a legitimately involving scare machine worthy of our involvement.  On a positive, this film represents the once promising filmmaker at arguably his most stripped down and sparse: Working with a scant $5 million budget and utilizing a found footage aesthetic, Shyamalan’s newest horror thriller venture feels looser, more enjoyably free-wheeling, and intriguing than his last handful of films.  Instead of concocting a borderline cockamamie premise and a ridiculously contrived twist ending (THE HAPPENING, anyone?), Shyamalan keeps everything relatively straightforward and simple this go around, which is an improvement for him.  The main problem, though, with THE VISIT is that – much like many other similar and recent genre efforts – it struggles to find validity in utilizing a found footage look and feel throughout, not to mention that, on a tonal level, the film is as all-over-the-map and nutty as some of its characters. 



On a basic premise and execution level, THE VISIT mostly works.  Akin to many of his past films, Shyamalan sets his spooky tale yet again in Pennsylvanian, this time involving a couple of inquisitive kids – Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) – that wish to, despite their mother ’s (Kathryn Hahn) consternation and disapproval, meet their long estranged grandparents.  The mother has a dark and sad past with her parents (she left them decades ago and has not seen or has spoken to them since), which leads the aspiring filmmaker in Becca yearning to make a documentary about her and her brother connecting with their elders.  Things have not been relatively good for this entire family, especially seeing as the mother’s husband recently abandoned her and the kids, leaving everyone emotionally edgy. 

Nevertheless, and after much debate, the mother decides to allow Becca and Tyler to make the venture out during one winter week to meet their “Pop Pop” and “Nana,” during which time Becca chronicles everything with her camera.  The grandparents in question (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, in two thanklessly good performances) seem, upon a first meeting, like typical and ordinary elderly folk that seem to be genuinely enthusiastic about meeting and spending time with their grandkids for the first time ever.  They take them back to their semi-secluded farmhouse in the country and, early on, everything about the kid’s trip seems worthwhile.  Then…odd things begin to happen.  Pop Pop spends much of his time in a hypnotic daze when he’s not shockingly attacking random strangers on the streets.  He also seems to spend an awful lot of time in his barn that (as Tyler insists) “smells like ass."  Nana begins to fare no better.  She awkwardly asks Becca to clean their oversized oven…by climbing all the way in it.  That may seem innocent enough, but Nana’s nocturnal habits appear more alarmingly psychotic.  She crawls on all floors at times, making crude animal noises.  Sometimes, she appears in the nude – in some sort of sleepwalk-like trance – and mimes that she’s painting the walls.  Pop Pop, of course, insists that the kids remain in their rooms after 9:30 pm…but the more disturbing behavior that Becca and Tyler notice…the more they feel inclined to break the house rules and document it for the camera.   

Okay, so what the hell is going on here?  Shyamalan does indeed display flashes of his past directorial self in teasing and tormenting audience members with possible answers.  There is, of course, a twist ending (a longstanding staple of his films) that provides a would-be shocking answer that’s sort of telegraphed very early on in the film with one stilted throwaway line of dialogue.  Regardless of the obviousness of the narrative approach here, Shyamalan does generate a palpable sense of unease throughout the film and seems to be mischievously playing around with our preconceived notions of horror genre troupes.  THE VISIT takes great glee in showcasing the grandparents doing seemingly inconsequential and mundane things and making them appear more macabre than they are…or perhaps they are actually macabre…without going into too much detail that would prove to be too spoilery.   

THE VISIT also has a juicily improvisational tone that lends itself well to immersing audience members within this bizarre trip for the children.  That, and Shyamalan – as he chiefly displayed in some of his earliest films – blends comedy and jump-scares with a real adept touch.  Yet, for as memorably peculiar as THE VISIT looks and feels throughout, Shyamalan seems a bit aloof at deciding what kind of film he’s really trying to make here.  The movie clumsily shifts gears so much throughout its scant 90-plus minute running time that it comes off as schizophrenic.  There are individual moments that drum up genuine sensations of shock and awe in viewers, and then those scenes are shoehorned in-between meta moments that are trying to be self-aware and semi-satirical about the horror genre itself.  When the film takes a drastic detour in its climax and becomes more of a perfunctory slasher/horror flick it’s almost as if Shyamalan didn’t feel secure enough to embrace all of the outlandish possibilities of his film’s premise to generate a thoroughly and appallingly unique payoff.   

Another problem taints this film: It never once requires itself to be a found footage film.  Not at all.  THE VISIT belongs on a long recent list of genre efforts that struggle to provide a logical rationale for its characters defying sound common sense to record…everyone and everything them.  Becca is, I guess, Shyamalan’s voice in the film, seeing as she frequently preaches to the nobility of aspiring to achieve lofty heights of artistic integrity and originality in her production within the film.  Yet, Shyamalan using this character to sermonize his inner thoughts seems distracting and too on-the-nose at times, not to mention that Becca and Tyler never really feel like authentically rendered children.  They’re so impossibly verbose and well spoken at times that they come off more as scripted characters and not ones that seem like natural occurring entities in THE VISIT’S faux-documentary.  Found footage requires and demands naturalism, but Shyamalan’s handling of these child characters feels to artificially staged throughout. 

Is THE VISIT a return to form for the disgraced director?  I guess, insofar as to say that it’s his best effort since 2002’s SIGNS.  Yet, considering the relative wall of shame films that have punctuated his resume since then…describing THE VISIT as Shyamalan’s triumphant creative rebirth isn’t really saying much.  It certainly doesn’t achieve the soul sucking mediocrity of his most recent work, but THE VISIT merely emerges as a modest, but shrug inducing workmanlike effort from a director still in search of a much needed source of inspiration.  I liked what I saw here from Shyamalan, but based on past – make that distant past – precedent, he’s capable of more.  

Much more.   

  H O M E