[Note: This post contains mild spoilers. Updated 9/21/15.]
Upon learning that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s first horror film since his laughable 2008 misfire The Happening is a faux found footage thriller, a cinephile could be forgiven for becoming wary. After all, the distinguishing features of Shyamalan’s more durable films are their aesthetic beauty and meticulous mise en scène. Witness the alternately idyllic and demon-haunted mists that suffuse the firelit gothic environs of The Village, or the proliferation of reflections and comic-esque quadrilaterals in Unbreakable’s steely blue visual vocabulary. Nine years into Shyamalan’s increasingly dire creative slump, what possible good could come from subordinating his once-striking cinematic aptitude to the jittery, willfully unpolished first-person camera gimmick?
Quite a bit, as it happens. While The Visit finds Shyamalan’s facility for striking visuals and cunning compositions at low ebb, it’s an unexpected showcase for his screenwriting talents. Indeed, in spite of its frequently cheesy horror methods, The Visit boasts the filmmaker’s most thoughtful and intricate script since at least The Village. However, unlike the latter film with its biting but overwrought allegory, The Visit is more content with the first-order business of delivering midnight movie creepiness. By relaxing his ambitions, Shyamalan paradoxically permits his sharper, multifaceted storytelling abilities to emerge. There’s a surprising amount of substance burbling gratifyingly beneath the surface of this demented little flick, which mashes up elements of Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, and Motel Hell and then liberally seasons them with Grimm fairy tales.
In contrast to many found footage horror pictures, The Visit establishes a semi-believable rationale for its central conceit. What unfolds on the screen is presented as the documentary film project of aspiring filmmaker Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), a precocious high schooler with appropriately over-inflated artistic pretensions. Rebecca and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are the product of their mother Paula’s (Kathryn Hahn) illicit adolescent marriage to her substitute teacher. That union caused a seemingly unrepairable rift with Paula’s parents, John and Doris, whom she has not spoken to in fifteen years. However, Paula's marriage eventually fell apart, and she has recently re-established tentative contact with her parents via the Internet. Given that they have never even met their grandchildren, Paula’s folks invite Rebecca and Tyler to spend the week at the family farm in rural Pennsylvania. This visit serves as the focus of Rebecca’s amateur documentary, but the teen’s ambitions are broader. She longs to unravel the mystery of what occurred the day her mother left home—Paula won’t elaborate, but hints that it was an ugly scene—and to hopefully persuade her grandparents to forgive their only child for her youthful lapses.
The Visit therefore consists of the footage shot over the course of the week by Rebecca and Tyler using the girl’s dual video cameras. (“Am I co-director?,” Tyler inquires hopefully. “We’ll say camera B Operator,” Rebecca replies with a scowl.) The film is murky as to whether the material shown constitutes raw or edited footage. The presence of bad takes and miscellaneous junk shots suggests the former, but Rebecca (or someone else) has clearly spliced the two-camera footage into cohesive scenes, added intertitles and dissolves, and generally sanded down the rough edges for audience consumption. Given the awareness that Rebecca exhibits with respect to documentary practice—the ethics of filming non-consenting individuals becomes a notable plot point—the most reasonable assumption is that everything in The Visit is there by her design.
From the moment that Rebecca and Tyler arrive at their mom’s childhood home, something seems a bit off about Pop Pop John (Peter McRobbie) and Nana Doris (Deanna Dunagan). They appear to be the picture of elderly folksiness, but their behavior carries a whiff of overcompensation. Cheerful Nana is perpetually baking up goodies in the kitchen, Pop Pop stoically tends to the farm’s never-ending chores, and the couple listens in respectful bewilderment as Tyler shows off his impressive improvised rapping talents. However, things start to get strange at bedtime, which arrives at the early hour of 9:30 p.m., to the disappointment of the WiFi-starved kids. Investigating weird sounds outside their room at night, Rebecca discovers Nana wandering about the house in her nightgown, vomiting prodigiously. The next day the kids observe Pop Pop repeatedly depositing small, mysterious parcels in the shed out back, and later they are maniacally accosted by Nana during an impromptu game of hide-and-seek—in the crawlspace under the house. Thereafter, the grandparents’ behavior rapidly escalates to the surreal, unsettling, and downright terrifying.
One of the more novel aspects of The Visit is how openly Rebecca and Tyler wrestle with the conflicts and uncertainties of their tense, increasingly perilous situation. Particularly in the found footage subgenre, the viewer doesn’t typically learn much about the mindsets of characters in contemporary horror features. The framework of Rebecca’s documentary—and her desire to understand the psychology of her family—means that The Visit can linger on scenes of brother and sister urgently discussing what the hell is going on, without seeming distractingly contrived about it. Given that Pop Pop and Nana are essentially strangers, the siblings have no basis for judging their grandparents’ bizarre behavior. Likewise, neither Rebecca nor Tyler seem to have much experience around the elderly. “They’re old. They’re just different,” is a mantra uttered by several characters, including Rebecca in a desperate attempt to convince herself that nothing is out of the ordinary. The yawning generation gap leaves the kids with little recourse but to Google terms like “dementia” and “schizophrenia” and make an educated guess about how much danger Pop Pop and Nana might pose to themselves or others. Unlike many horror films, the choices presented by The Visit are not easy ones: The kids’ terror at each fresh slice of menacing weirdness is at war with their genuine, familial concern that something might be seriously wrong with their grandparents.
The Visit’s success as a psychological thriller is helped immeasurably by the fact that DeJonge and Oxenbould have authentic sibling-like chemistry, enabling Shyamalan and his performers to gradually reveal more rounded personalities for Rebecca and Tyler, beyond their interest in documentaries and hip hop, respectively. Arguably the best scene in the film involves the siblings interrogating each other in makeshift interviews, wherein Rebecca coaxes he brother into talking about a formative moment of childhood shame, while Tyler zeroes in on his sister’s hidden self-loathing. Details from this scene later become relevant, not in the typically neat and tidy way of most Shyamalan plotting, but as a means of explaining behavior and creating poetic echoes. As characters, the kids aren’t always likable, but they are smart and good-hearted, and their situation, for all its outlandishness, is based on a cluster of relatable, real-world anxieties.
If the The Visit’s protagonists were middle-aged adults, the fears that the film plays upon would be more straightforward in nature. To a grownup, a senior citizen functions as a glimpse into their own future fate, and the elderly accordingly become vessels for the terrors of loneliness, illness, and mortality. For children such as Rebecca and Tyler, however, old people represent an alien Other: survivors from a far-flung time who eat, dress, and act differently than modern citizens of the world. The tension at the heart of The Visit is therefore partly one of cultural confusion. The initial challenge that that kids face is to decide whether they are over-reacting to innocuous events based on their ageist and ableist biases. Eventually, this mutates into the even thornier problems that many people face when dealing with an illness that makes their loved ones unpredictable, antagonistic, and even abusive.
These are sobering matters for a film that is otherwise a by-the-numbers (albeit modestly effective) exercise in jump scares and chilling imagery. Shyamalan unfortunately leans a bit too heavily on funhouse facileness, e.g., a disheveled old person suddenly popping into the frame. Such hokey methods can work when used sparingly, but the director is overly reliant on them, and dispiritingly eager to lazily reuse the aesthetic tropes of contemporary horror. (Are there hissing, stringy-haired figures skittering around on all fours? You bet!) Conversely, the most frightening sequences in The Visit are those predicated on the nerve-fraying uncertainty about Pop Pop and Nana’s behavior. For example, after their grandfather delivers an unprovoked beating on a stranger in an apparent moment of paranoid senility, the threat of explosive violence from Pop Pop makes Rebecca doubly wary about correcting his absent-minded mistakes.
Visually speaking, The Visit is just as undistinguished as one might expect given its found footage premise. This is not an implicit slap at cinematographer Maryse Alberti, whose résumé includes an impressive array of documentary features and the low-fi triumph The Wrestler, making her a judicious choice to lens this sort of film. Shyamalan, to his credit, seems to intuit that the low-budget sensory blandness of The Visit requires a complementary dose of subliminal uncanniness. Accordingly, he provides the film’s screenplay with a robust undercurrent of folk and pop cultural resonance to boost the hair-raising factor.
The entire film is, in essence, a riff on “Little Red Riding Hood,” complete with the unnerving notion of finding something unexpectedly and conspicuously Not Grandma sleeping in Grandma’s bed. More subtle allusions abound: the kids are warned not to linger on a woodland path, Pop Pop is observed chopping wood out by the barn, and it is mentioned ominously that Nana has something “inside her” trying to get out. Tempting treats are everywhere at the farmhouse, and Nana even sweet-talks Rebecca into crawling inside her cavernous oven to clean it, in a bit of “Hansel and Gretel” inspired creepiness. Like Bluebeard’s locked room, both Pop Pop’s shed and the allegedly mold-infested basement are forbidden to the curious grandchildren. Shyamalan even drizzles in chilling allusions to other genres and his own prior works. Pop Pop tells a disjointed story about being fired from his night shift factory job after he repeatedly witnessed a “white thing” with glowing eyes, which no one else could see. Nana later spins a rambling tale concerning invisible space aliens that live in a pond and send their victims into eternal slumber. These anecdotes suggest bits of The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water, but ultimately their purpose is not so much meta-textual cuteness as to inject an extra dose of eeriness into the film.
The one aspect of The Visit that is somewhat troubling is the film’s use of dementia and mental illness as a source of horror, in that individuals suffering from such conditions are presented as frightening and potentially violent. While Shyamalan’s script doesn’t assert that the elderly and/or mentally disordered are to be feared and shunned, The Visit’s moral could be construed by less attentive viewers as “old people are weird and dangerous,” or, more problematically, “mentally ill individuals are unhinged sadists who will kill you with little provocation.” It’s not necessarily that the film is glib or irresponsible, but that its depiction of an extraordinary situation could be construed as a bigoted generalization. (One is reminded of the viewers whose short-sighted takeaway from Gone Girl was “women are manipulative bitches.”) That said, the depiction of mental illness is a problem in essentially every horror film that involves a murderer slicing his way through hapless victims based on some deranged motivation. The Visit at least has the nerve to engage directly with the matter: the discomfort that nonconforming behavior elicits in the neurotypical; the distress that the mental degeneration of one’s elderly loved ones creates; and the maddening haziness as to what the right choice might be when health, safety, devotion, and pride are in multi-dimensional conflict.