Allow me to put my head in the oven and make the case for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, a movie in which there’s much to potentially despise, yet the finished product overcomes said deficiencies by virtue of being an effective creepshow. Like Renny Harlin, another one-time glistening star in the Hollywood firmament, Shyamalan’s been forced to downscale after a series of expensive flops, and has reached for that low-budget horror stalwart, the found footage movie (though in this case it was never lost).
Harlin’s effort, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a.k.a Devil’s Pass, shares many of The Visit’s conceptual flaws. As in Harlin’s narrative, the “filmmakers”, in this case two precocious kids making a documentary about the feud between their single Mother and her estranged parents, whom they’ve been invited to stay with for a ‘get to you know you’ week, manage to frame the bulk of their shots with an experienced director’s moxie, with lighting, sound and picture quality suitable for theatrical presentation.
Naturally there’s a few cant angles and the occasional camera left on its side, after all this is supposed to be an amateur effort, but for the most part the kids are fortunate to get all the coverage they need to tell the goosebump story of an increasingly deranged and nocturnally threatening Nana and Pop Pop, with cinematic precision. The editing, which successfully builds tension during crunch moments, helps too. But at least these characters are clear that they are making a film, and as such as we can suspend our disbelief and accept they could make what looks a lot like a handheld M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Of course like all movies in the wretched found footage sub-genre, the conceit gets more frustrating as the action unfolds. When all is relatively well, when Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould merely suspect their olds are unhinged and potentially dangerous, you’d expect a degree of detachment in the recording of events; kids that have both the time and the inclination to frame shots carefully, white balance and so on. As the nightmare escalates and it becomes clear there’s more to a shed full of excremental nappies, a woman laughing at a blank wall and a strict ban on venturing into the basement than wizened eccentricity, the imperative to keep recording becomes harder to understand. How many people under threat of imminent death take the time to keep the camera pointed in the right direction? How many keep their face in frame as they’re grappling with an apparently psychotic old woman? Despite a sustained sense of dread, despite the promise of “dramatic tension” in-movie, such imports from the world of horror schlock threaten to break The Visit’s spell and write off the director’s apparent return to effective scares following a decade long dry spell.
And yet, and yet… The Visit may be silly at times (a house devoid of technology, with no access to wi-fi and mobile signal for plot purposes, conveniently has an Ethernet port for Skype, even though the grandparents live in a remote farmhouse and don’t own a computer), but it’s still got a lot going for it. Principle amongst these is a wry and often witty screenplay, supported by likable and animated performances from DeJonge and Oxenbould. Kids can kill a movie stone dead but this pair are dimensional and occasionally affecting, in the moments the schlocky A-story is paused to explore the broken family dynamics underpinning their long overdue stay with the grandparents. With these characters and a great, tightly focused setup, Shyamalan has rediscovered his talent for creating unease and pulling the rug from under audiences. Yes, there’s a twist – no one said the director was reinventing himself – and although the moment isn’t given sufficient weight to sell it for my taste – it’s nevertheless an enjoyable, story-bending revelation.
What might have made The Visit great, rather than simply fun and efficient, would have been telling the story the old fashioned way, employing the filmmaker’s omnipresence to craft the movie’s shocks. What, you have to ask, is gained by the self-imposed constraints employed here? In the end, little of nothing, but the overused “return to form” seems fair comment on a Shyamalan movie that’s grounded by solid characters and has enough nous to make the teeth jitter more than once.