Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A New Twist on the Twist: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit

We are very pleased to welcome a new critic, Danny McMurray, to our group.

Note: There are spoilers ahead.

M. Night Shyamalan, in spite of all the totally valid criticism he receives, has always managed to entertain me. For that reason (and partially also because of the very Hansel and Gretel-esque teaser which, I swear, played approximately twice every commercial break this month on MTV), I was all too eager to catch his latest horror/comedy film, The Visit  naively eager, perhaps. On the matter of entertainment, I can report that it delivered, but not without its share of problems.

The Visit marks a distinct change of pace from Shyamalan’s blockbuster successes of yesteryear (The Sixth Sense, Signs). Created with just a sliver of the budget he was (unfortunately) granted for his most recent large-scale flop, The Last Airbender, The Visit has a refreshingly independent, no-frills feel which works well for the subject matter. The film neither relies on animatronic monsters nor green screens for its scares. There are no special effects save for the blood red letters set against snowy backdrops that, in what I can only assume is a nod to The Shining, announce the beginning of each new, horror-filled day. It’s stark; it’s simple; it works. The film also cuts costs by adopting a “found-footage” format. Protagonists Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) decide that they want to document their visit with their estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) so that they can bring the footage home to mom and mend the rift in their family. While the “found-footage” angle is a little worn out in conventional horror movies, Shyamalan uses the format self-referentially and satirically to some degree of success.

The plot is almost exactly what it appears to be in the trailer. Precocious siblings Becca and Tyler bravely embark on a week-long stay with grandparents they’ve never met in order to give their quirky single mom (Kathryn Hahn, in a remarkable display of talent simply for making her character likeable) some alone time with her boyfriend. Mom, of course, won’t explain why she hasn’t spoken to her parents in fifteen years despite apparently trusting them enough to leave her preteen children in their care. The premise feels like something straight out of a Goosebumps episode but mom, candidly recounting how she ran off with her high school English teacher (and the kids’ father) is characterized as being just dippy enough to render the story believable. With mom’s blessing, the kids make their way to predictably rural Pennsylvania where “Nana” and “Pop Pop” quickly degenerate from kindly old people into spooky, decrepit weirdos. Unsettled, Becca and Tyler use their camcorders to unravel whatever mystery is at the heart of Nana and Pop Pop’s peculiar behavior. Naturally, madness ensues.

And I do mean actual, literal madness. The film spends a lot of time ruminating on the horrors of aging only to turn around and “out” Nana and Pop Pop as honest-to-goodness, certifiably insane people. That revelation keeps this particular Shyamalan tale firmly grounded in reality but depicting the grandparents as a couple of plain old “crazies” has its drawbacks. Specifically, Shyamalan’s use of the mentally ill as a source of comedy leaves me feeling a little uneasy. Are we supposed to laugh at Nana exposing herself when she emerges from the crawlspace under the porch or is her nudity designed to frighten us? These moments are surely intended to elicit one, if not both, of these responses although the exact intention tends to get a little muddled. Furthermore, if one examines these moments critically, can we truly say that either reaction is really appropriate? At the risk of further moralizing, I found the confrontation between Tyler and Pop Pop in the kitchen at the climax of the film to be the most egregious offender in terms of off-colour humour. Tyler stands frozen in fear with his back to the camera. Pop Pop approaches him menacingly and threatens some vague punishment before stepping behind the counter and unzipping his pants. There are a couple tense seconds (and way too much eye contact) before the film cuts away. The fact that Pop Pop “drops trou” only so he can shove his soiled adult diaper in Tyler’s face doesn’t negate the uncomfortable suspicion that Shyamalan just made a rape joke about a 13-year-old boy in a PG-13 movie. Some of The Visit’s gags might have been easier to swallow had the movie been funnier but, save for a couple moments (notably, Tyler’s habit of replacing “swear words” with the names of female pop stars consistently garnered laughs), the alleged comedy in this “horror/comedy” often falls a little flat.

Nana (Deanna Dunagan) skulking. 

That’s not to say The Visit doesn’t have some redeeming qualities. The nighttime footage of Nana skulking around the house in a nightgown, doing all kinds of increasingly disturbing things is delightfully creepy. I was also surprised by the inevitable twist; it’s clever, plausible, and well-executed. The performances are decent for what they are and even though I found Oxenbould and DeJonge initially grating, they play off each other well and grew on me by the end. That said, the best part of The Visit, by far, is that it showcases a more relaxed Shyamalan. For a director who is regularly criticized for making films that take themselves too seriously, M. Night Shyamalan does a great job here at poking fun at himself and the clichĂ©s he’s built his career on. My favourite example is Nana’s whack-a-doodle monologue about aliens which was not only deliciously tongue-in-cheek, but also served as a perfect red herring, diverting the audience’s attention from the obvious (and actual) conclusion about Nana and Pop Pop.

All in all, The Visit is a welcome departure from the kind of film we’ve come to expect from M. Night Shyamalan. Were parts of The Visit in poor taste? Definitely but, to be fair, what horror movie isn’t? It was fun, it was absurd, it was mindless, and I applaud him firstly for taking a crack at “horror/comedy,” a genre that still feels largely unexplored, but most importantly for taking a different kind of crack at himself.

- Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Danny!! I can't describe my delight in seeing your name on the roster. Great review - I can't wait to see The Visit if only to witness M. Night's unexpected turnaround from hack fraudulence - and I look forward eagerly to more from you. Welcome to the family!