Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould
Running Time: 94 minutes
Considering that M Night Shyamalan is responsible for both The Sixth Sense and The Last Airbender, I really wasn’t sure what to expect of his latest offering. I don’t think it’s particularly harsh to say that Shyamalan isn’t known for his consistency as a filmmaker, by which I mean that I think of him as “that guy who made one great film and then a string of terrible ones”.
The Sixth Sense, released back in 1999, is the great film I’m referring to here; known primarily for its clever and genuinely shocking twist ending. What I loved most about the film was that it relied on atmosphere rather than cheap scares to inspire unease in its viewers, and seemed to hint at a director who understood his audience very well. Fast forward to 2015, and looking back on Shyamalan’s filmography as a whole, that last statement would turn out to be overly optimistic. Signs was pretty good. The Village started out promisingly, but was spoilt by a silly and unsatisfying twist at the end. Lady in the Water and The Happening were awful, and as for The Last Airbender, I think the fact that Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 6% rating says it all.
Needless to say, I went to watch The Visit feeling slightly apprehensive.
The premise of the film is pretty simple; two young teenagers decide to stay with their estranged grandparents for a week so that their mother can take a well-earned holiday. The kids are a little dismayed by their grandparents’ eccentric behaviour (which includes sleepwalking, hoarding used nappies, and an uncomfortable amount of nudity), but put it down to the couple’s age. “They’re just weird people,” their mother reassures them over Skype, “they’re just old!” However, as time goes on, it becomes clear that there is indeed something very wrong with their grandparents, and pretty soon events take a turn from strange to terrifying.
The main problem with so many of Shyamalan’s films is that he’s so intent on creating something unique and shocking that he ends up neglecting basic believability, leading to a story that is overwrought and ultimately preposterous. While The Visit does have the obligatory twist ending that the director is famous (or perhaps notorious) for, thankfully this is not the case here. Although the twist does require a suspension of disbelief, the ending is just about plausible enough to be fun rather than ridiculous. I’ll admit that I did manage to predict what was going to happen relatively early on, but I think that was mainly because I set out to do so. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so all I will say is that the twist isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but it did wrap up the film’s loose ends quite nicely.
What stood out for me about The Visit is that it marks a departure from the director’s penchant for pretentiously convoluted storylines, and a return to what made The Sixth Sense so successful. Sustaining an atmosphere of unease takes precedence over trying to be clever, and the scares are much more effective as a result. One scene in particular, in which the children don’t realise they have a third player during a game of hide and seek, was so creepy that I had to watch through my fingers.
The film is also genuinely funny. It’s been marketed as a horror film, but I think it’s actually more of a black comedy, with most of the humour playing on the cultural and behavioural gulf between the children and the grandparents. While a lot of the humour itself isn’t particularly sophisticated (think projectile vomiting, incontinence, and the horror of seeing your nan naked), the way in which it functions in the film certainly is. Comedy in The Visit is a double-edged sword, with something that’s funny in one scene becoming terrifying in the next, and vice versa. Done incorrectly this could have been jarring, but the varieties of horror and humour used in the film are so simple that the two elements complement each other, creating a perpetual sense of impending dread.
Another great thing about the film is its two young protagonists. Many critics have complained that Rebecca and Tyler are annoying, and whilst I see where they’re coming from, I don’t agree. In the wrong hands, the characters could have indeed turned out pretty grating, but Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are too talented for that, and their thoughtful performances make the children’s precociousness charming rather than irritating. Oxenbould is also very funny, and most of the times I laughed during the film were because of him.
The Visit may not be M Night Shyamalan’s best film, but it is also, mercifully, not his worst. While ultimately a little predictable, the film benefits from good performances, a clever mixture of horror and comedy, and, most of all, the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.