Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015)

Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language

M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker whose brand has... uh, taken a few hits over the years. At the turn of the 21st century, people were seriously comparing him to Spielberg and Hitchcock after his one-two-three punch of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Before long, however, the shocking twist endings that he made his name on became predictable, and the quality of his films started sliding. While The Village was more a victim of bad marketing than anything (people went in expecting a monster movie, but got a period romance with psychological thriller elements), Lady in the Water was a self-indulgent mess, and his follow-ups kept dragging down his reputation until he found himself working as a "hired gun" on the execrable bomb After Earth. In 2015, though, that changed. This year marks the first time in over a decade when people have talked about Shyamalan as anything other than a joke. His summer series Wayward Pines on Fox got solid reviews, as did his latest film, the scary-old-people horror flick The Visit that many critics have called a return to form for the embattled director. Has Shyamalan regained his touch, or is he still making the same mistakes that dragged him down?

Before I answer that question, let me make a disclosure: not only is there a twist, but I had it spoiled for me before I saw the film, which colored how I viewed everything that happened up to that big moment. I will not spoil it myself, but rest assured, I was viewing this film very differently from most other people seeing it for the first time, trying to spot plot holes and see if the film comes together or does a good job building up to its reveal. Regarding how well it does at that: eh, this movie's okay, I guess. It's the best film Shyamalan's done in over a decade, but it's not quite a return to form. It's very slow, and in my opinion took too long to really get scary, while the attempts at comic relief had me groaning more often than not. However, well-written characters, good actors, some nice buildup to the big twist, and scares that do work once the movie gets going did win me over in the end. This is definitely a matinee at best, and a film that I give only my lightest recommendation, but a thumbs-up it is, especially if you don't know the twist going in like I did.

The film tells the story of Becca and Tyler, two teenage siblings who are sent to spend a week with their grandparents John and Doris while their mother goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. Mom is estranged from her parents, and is only sending her kids to spend the week with them begrudgingly; they kicked her out of the house when they learned that she was sleeping with one of her teachers, the man who she later married and had kids with before he left her. As a result, Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents before now, and so Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, decides to make a documentary about the visit. (Yes, this is a found-footage movie. Stop groaning.) While they're initially overjoyed, they soon start to notice that Doris and John are pretty weird people, perhaps dangerously so. Between them telling the kids not to go into the basement, the strange things found in the shed, and Doris' late-night wandering around the house, Becca and Tyler suspect that their grandparents are up to no good -- and that their lives may be in danger.

The film's biggest problem is in its pacing. To put it bluntly, it just takes too long before we even start to realize that John and Doris' weirdness isn't just senility at work. It's atmospheric with its use of the quaint farmhouse and the surrounding Pennsylvania woods, but it's not particularly tense as we see Becca and Tyler engaging in mundane activities during the first act, with little to indicate that anything is wrong until the half-hour mark. The humor that Shyamalan interspersed throughout also fell flat more often than not, especially when it was combined with the scarier moments. The first two scenes that really tried to amp up the scares saw their efforts (which actually did work) wasted when they ended on gags that weren't even all that funny. It's the difference between Scream and Scream 4 -- whereas the former film knew to draw a line between the horror and the comedy, the latter was at times too goofy for its own good. The Visit, unfortunately, has more in common with Scream 4.

Fortunately, most of this film's problems are stacked towards the front, enough that I was able to register a marked uptick in quality towards the end. The film worked much better once the affairs going on started getting serious about halfway in, and at least part of that is due to some of the things that this film did right early on. Specifically, all four of the main characters were compelling, with a solid cast of unknowns for all of them. I liked Becca and Tyler, even with the latter's awful rapping (forgot to mention: he's a wannabe rapper, supplying a good chunk of the humor that does work in the process), while John and Doris successfully tread a fine line between "doddering old folks" and villains. The found footage style actually did less harm than good, for a change. By design, it kept the film confined to one perspective, that of the kids, which meant that, as they learned more about the house and their grandparents, we learned it with them. The events that unfold later on show that Shyamalan hasn't forgotten how to bring the scares, especially after the twist, which is not only implied throughout the film but which isn't at the very end -- there's still another twenty minutes to go after it's revealed. The film's attempts to find a greater subtext in its scares were hit-or-miss, however. Running through the film is a message about family and loss, and while it did make the characters more interesting, I can't really say that it served the film all that well. Most notably, without spoiling anything, I didn't really get how the twist related to this film's subtext in any real way. The film grasps around for greater meaning, but compared to films like The Babadook and The Taking of Deborah Logan that had very similar themes, The Visit doesn't quite find it.

Score: 3 out of 5

I can only give it my barest recommendation, but it's still clear from this film that Shyamalan has managed to, at the very least, stop making bad movies. I'm definitely interested in seeing his next film, something I haven't been able to say in years, and if you have nothing better to do, then go check this out.

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