Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 23, 2015)
Will M. Night Shyamalan ever enjoy a critical and/or commercial success that approaches 1999’s The Sixth Sense? Probably not. Shyammalan suffered from diminishing returns as the years progressed, and he’s not earned a legitimate hit since 2002’s Signs.
That said, 2015’s The Visit shows that Shyamalan still has some life in him. No, the movie didn’t dazzle at the box office, as it earned a modest $65 million in the US, but given the film’s miniscule $5 million budget, it turned a sizable profit. It also received reasonably positive reviews, as it got the best notices of any Shyamalan work since Signs.
Visit marks a return to small-scale filmmaking after Shyamalan’s big-budget “tentpole” adventures After Earth and The Last Airbender. Egged on by her kids, Loretta Jamison (Kathryn Hahn) takes a vacation with her boyfriend. She sends the aforementioned teenage offspring Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to stay with her parents “Nana” (Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop Pop” (Peter McRobbie).
This becomes an unusual occasion because the kids have never met their grandparents. When Loretta eloped years earlier, this led to estrangement between her and her parents.
An aspiring filmmaker, Becca decides to document her first encounter with her grandparents. She gets more than she anticipated, as the kids’ stay comes with a series of odd – and disturbing – events.
The “Becca makes a documentary” framework means that Visit goes with a “found footage” format. Most uses of that technique flop because they feel like cheap filmmaking – it’s like their creators think the style allows them to ignore professionalism.
That seems like less of a concern with Visit, perhaps because it comes from such an established filmmaker. Shyamalan may have lost steam over the years, but he remains a skilled director, so Visit works better as a “traditional movie” than the average found footage flick.
Actually, Visit seems so professional that the found footage conceit makes less sense. So much of the film looks well-composed that it lacks the verisimilitude that stands as the main advantage of found footage. While Visit offers occasional shots that show the roughness one expects from the genre, most of the photography feels pretty traditional.
Which makes me wonder why Shyamalan opted for “found footage” in the first place. There’s nothing about the story that dictates its usage, and it doesn’t become a particularly useful narrative device. Couple that with Shyamalan’s apparent inability to create a movie with a convincing sense of amateurishness and the cinematic techniques of Visit feel off.
Whatever methods we see, Visit falls short of its goals simply because it’s pretty boring. The movie telegraphs its points too early, mainly via the depiction of the grandparents. They come across as so odd so soon that we immediately view them as more than just quirky old people.
That really does turn into a flaw. A more logical film would allow the grandparents to seem normal at the start and then slowly permit their weirdness to emerge, but that doesn’t happen. We’re given such extreme – and creepy - oddness so soon that any further “twists” don’t startle or shock.
Visit does manage a fairly interesting plot surprise late in the tale, but it feels more like a gimmick than anything else, and the film’s last act so actively shifts the scare attempts into overdrive that it seems a bit desperate.
Eep, the movie’s final third really does get silly. Not that the prior hour feels all that compelling, but Visit goes off the rails toward the end. Perhaps Shyamalan figured he needed to let everything fly to compensate for the mediocrity of the initial two acts, but it doesn’t work.
All of these factors leave The Visit as a pretty limp horror tale. Perhaps if the film opted for more subtly, it could’ve achieved a reasonable level of creepiness, but instead, it seems silly and uncompelling.