There’s something wicked at Grandma’s house in the new horror film from M. Night Shyamalan
The Visit doesn’t know if it wants to be scary or funny – and that’s the horror.This low-budget film was produced largely under the radar and shot in 30 days with a tiny crew and an even smaller cast. Shyamalan shopped his film to Blumhouse Productions (the team behind such scream-fests as the Paranormal Activity series and Insidious) and The Visit was born. Originally titled Sundowning (a much more interesting title), the film bears a lot of the hallmarks of a classic Blumhouse production; it’s a found-footage horror set at a rural family home designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Loretta (Kathryn Hahn) is going off on a cruise while her teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go for their first visit to Grandma and Grandpa Jamison.What follows is a mix of jump-inducing shocks, plenty of one-liners, a fair few moments of disgust and just general weirdness. Oh, and possibly the most silly closing scene of the year. And yes, silly is absolutely the right word. Upon arriving at their grandparents’ house, Becca and Tyler are told in no uncertain terms by Grandpa (Paul McRobbie) that “bedtime here is 9.30”. In other words, come out of your room at night at your peril. Of course, like all good horror-movie protagonists, the kids absolutely do not heed this warning and they soon discover that there may be more to sweet ol’ Grandma (Deanna Dunagan) than at first meets the eye.
After a series of high-profile critical failures (The Last Airbender, The Happening, After Earth), Shyamalan will be hoping to get back to the sort of creepy fare that made his name (The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs, Unbreakable). In the pleasing Shyamalan tradition, The Visit does have the shriek-factor and the chilling twist, although it also has a good dose of Airbending silliness.
The found-footage aesthetic is, for better or worse, maintained throughout, even in moments where it seems physically impossible. Becca is an aspiring documentary filmmaker with all the trimmings – pretentiousness, condescension and a keen eye for mise-en-scène. At times it seems as though Becca is a proxy-Shyamalan, and all her high-minded posturing is the director himself trying to prove to us all that he does know film. Arming herself and her brother with cameras for their weeklong trip to the grandparents’ turns out to be a super smart move, if a little played-out. The film is framed by an interview with Loretta, who gives a little context to her relationship with her parents. The pay-off of this particular section of the film is completely underwhelming, and suffers for being revealed after the film’s big twist.
If you’ve ever seen a horror film before, chances are you’ll see some of the big jumpy moments coming, but there are still a few classic shocks that will at the very least produce a wry smile, if not a scream. The Visit does differ a little from the usual found-footage movies in that there are genuine moments of comedy scattered throughout the otherwise creepy and mysterious narrative. This could be an innovative move on the horror scene, but in this film the comedy serves to diffuse tension, rather than add anything to it.
The kids are told never to go out of their room after 9:30pm but of course they ignore this advice.
The visit of the title takes place over a week, and at times it felt like I’d been sat in the cinema for about the same time. Each day is introduced with a title card on screen and punctuated by the kids asking their grandparents for explanations of the strange happenings in the house. Every night the siblings are woken by strange noises and ominous bangs beyond their bedroom door, and thanks to some frankly incredible amateur camerawork on the part of our heroes the audience gets a glimpse at what’s going on in the Jamison household.
Had the film ended about five minutes earlier than it did, I probably would have thought a little more kindly about The Visit – the twist in the tale is genuinely great and well-worked, and there are enough creepy moments for you to probably get your money’s worth (depending on which cinema you go to). But just when you think it’s over Shyamalan pulls a Shyamalan and goes too far, and there are a few scenes after the big reveal that just relegate everything before it to weirdness, and the bizarre comedy ending left me completely unsure how to feel about all the trauma that had just happened.
If you’re in the market for a found-footage horror, this is one for you. If you’re after horror-standard scares (things jumping at the camera, sudden movements, slow turns of the head etc.), then you’ll find them here. If you feel the need to see a horror-comedy about geriatrics in the snow – THIS IS DEFINITELY FOR YOU. If you’re a cynic or otherwise inclined to be snarky (greetings, soulmate), you probably won’t find this the creepy, shocking chill-fest it’s intended to be.
Shyamalan has done well to permeate the horror-film tone with moments of humour, and without those moments this would have been just another found-footage movie with bumps, thumps and jumps. As it is, I’d label it as a somewhat ridiculous, occasionally jumpy, creepy almost-horror kinda-comedy that struggles to find a balance between scares and laughs, but that that will make you think twice before popping round Grandma’s for a cuppa.
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