(okay, there’s a couple,
but they’re not about plot)
When I first saw the description for the 2015 film The Visit, written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, of The Sixth Sense fame, I immediately tuned in. Though I’d never really heard of the director by name, I loved The Sixth Sense, and I’d thought The Village was interesting, although it relied too much on the “twist” ending to be really successful. The Visit also has a twist ending, one which isn’t nearly so shocking as that of The Sixth Sense, but one that is more, shall we say, realistic.
Shyamalan’s films are virtually always classified as horror, though The Visit, which is like Hansel and Gretel with a video camera, recording their first visit ever to Grandma’s House, has too many attempts at comedy to be true horror. In fact, many reviewers, professional and amateur, complained that the film couldn’t decide its genre. Director Shyamalan admitted that he had trouble keeping the tone for the film consistent during the editing phase, first ending up with “an art house” film, then a comedy, then a “middle balance” film which he classifies as a “thriller.”
Roger Ebert is the only critic I found who unequivocally praised the humor in the film, adding that “the film is ridiculous on so many levels, the story playing out like the most monstrous version of Hansel & Gretel imaginable, and in that context, ‘ridiculous’ is the highest possible praise.”
I almost turned it off during the first half hour: that’s where most of the “comedy” occurs, and it’s not successful. Neither is the “found footage” trope of the young girl Becca constantly video-taping everything. The Village Voice reviewer didn’t like this trope either, writing that it was “yet another cheap-o found-footage scare picture,” although the reviewer felt that, ultimately, the film was “crafted with a rigor and intelligence too rarely applied to the genre.”
This “found footage” video-tape trope reminds me of epistolary novels, more popular when novels were still a new and unacceptable art form (as opposed to drama and poetry), and novelists attempted to make the novel more convincing by giving it an air of autobiography. Just as the protagonists of the epistolary novels continue writing letters at the most improbable moments of their stories, Becca and Tyler, the grandchildren in The Visit, continue video-taping their story when it becomes downright dangerous to do so.
Still, once the “humorous” elements disappear — about 30 minutes in — and once even the filmmaker Shymalan himself seems to forget the “found footage” element of the story, The Visit becomes an intense and interesting suspense film.
15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge)
and her 13-year-old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould),
prepare for a five-day visit with their maternal grandparents while their divorced mother, Loretta (Kathryn Hahn),
goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. The teens, who have never even seen photos of their grandparents, let alone met them, have idealized them into perfect grandparents.
Initially, the teens get what they expected. But, if Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and PopPop (Peter McRobbie) seem a little too perfect, it’s because they are.
Every time the children try to discuss their grandparents with their mother, via Skype or FaceTime on the laptop, however, she insists that her parents are old, so they’re bound to be quirky or weird or cranky. She complains that the children really just want her to cut short her cruise with her new boyfriend, apparently the first serious relationship she’s had since the children’s father left her for another woman.
Now that their mother has dismissed their concerns and heaped a ton of guilt on their heads, the children aren’t going to turn to her for assistance. Instead, they try to discover the mystery of their grandparents’ strange behavior, putting themselves into dangerous situations — all the while taping them — and getting more terrified by the day.
It’s never satisfactorily explained why the grandparents had no relationship with their daughter. (This isn’t really a Spoiler since it doesn’t change the way viewers would interpret or judge the film, not revealing any actual plot elements, but skip the rest of this paragraph if you really want to learn absolutely everything from the film itself.) At 19, the mother of the teens married one of her high school teachers, and the grandparents were upset about this, leading the daughter to slap her mother during an especially intense argument, and causing her father to then slap the daughter Loretta. That doesn’t seem like enough to sever the relationship between the grandparents and their only child, and, given the fact that the grandparents had reached out to the daughter many times, it’s strange that such an insignificant event could have caused a rupture of their supposedly loving family. Still, I came from a severely abusive family, so something like a legal adult marrying her high school teacher, with whom she then has a relatively long marriage as well as two children, seems to be little reason for such a fierce argument, even if a few slaps were thrown around, but who am I to judge what non-abusive families consider unacceptable behavior?
Given that the backstory’s reason for the grandchildren’s never having met their grandparents is weak, The Visit still turns out to be quite a film, though I’d call it more suspense than thriller. Even if you guess the “twist” beforehand, you’ll still care what happens to the children, who are interesting and delightful not only because of their characters, but because the actors playing them are so good.
I have to mention something about the filmmaking and the writing, which you might consider a Spoiler though it is not about the ultimate plot details. There’s some gratuitous nudity of the grandmother, and I’m telling you this only because I found it completely unnecessary to the story and felt really sorry for the poor actor who had to do those scenes. You can also forget the adult diapers: they’re pointless except for a gross-factor, and don’t contribute to the suspense at all.