Two distinct problems of execution keep The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan's "comeback" from being anything more than another disappointing title on an increasingly uneven filmography. Despite a promising premise and effective "Shyamalan twist", this low-budget horror film still underwhelms. The Sixth Sense writer/director is his own worst enemy in the choices he makes bringing The Visit to the screen.
Perhaps the first thing the viewer has to decide is whether or not to take The Visit seriously. Is it intended as a comedy/parody or it is meant to be a "legitimate" horror film? The laughs, most of which are intentional, argue for the former. Indeed, for a majority of the running length, The Visit has all the earmarks of a tongue-in-cheek satire. Unfortunately, toward the end, the movie undergoes such a dramatic tonal shift that whiplash is unavoidable. It's almost as if Shyamalan, afraid that audiences wouldn't relate to his original vision, abruptly changed course to something safe. It feels like a betrayal, sabotaging whatever limited goodwill the first 75 minutes develops.
As egregious an issue as that is, it's nothing compared to Shyamalan's baffling decision to make The Visit an excursion into "found footage" gimmickry. For reasons known only to the filmmaker, the movie is presented in the first-person point-of-view as outtakes from an amateur documentary. So, yes, this is yet another horror movie in which characters defy logic and always find a way to keep a camera rolling. Once in a rare while, a "found footage" film figures out a legitimate reason to be presented in this format - The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity come to mind - but, for the most part, this approach has become as disliked among genre adherents as with the public in general. With its shaky camera, it's more apt to induce queasiness than uneasiness. In The Visit, it's a constant distraction. Maybe that's the point - viewers focused on camera placement are less likely to ponder whether the narrative makes sense.
Most of the story transpires in a rural part of Pennsylvania where Philadelphia kids Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are spending a wintery week with their estranged grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), so their mother (Kathryn Hahn) can go on a cruise with her boyfriend. Much is made out the fractured family history: Mom hasn't seen her parents for fifteen years since she ran away to elope with an "inappropriate" boyfriend. The husband's subsequent abandonment of his wife and two children has left deep emotional scars that form the underpinning of various questionable dramatic elements.
Shyamalan taps into the nostalgic memories and feelings many adults have of spending a week with the grandparents. Part adventure and part time travel, these vacations remind youngsters that old people may inhabit the same world as them but are often a little behind the times and adhere to habits formed when society was different. Nana seems to spend every waking hour baking but her nocturnal habits are disturbing (to say the least). Meanwhile, Pop Pop loves chopping wood, but what does he have hidden in the old shed that, in Tyler's words, "smells like ass"? For a while, The Visit does a canny job of poking fun at how horror movies put a sinister cast on seemingly mundane situations.
At times, especially early in the proceedings, The Visit is a funny film. It works best as a satire and, at least on some level, that's Shyamalan's intention. Most of the humor is calculated and not the result of bad acting or outrageously lame plot contortions. The director may have been trying to recreate what Wes Craven achieved with Scream - an effortless melding of dark comedy and blood-chilling horror - but the blend curdles and the first-person approach is sufficiently annoying to make it unlikely anyone will care.
I have to admit that the twist got me. I wasn't expecting it and it's sufficiently low-key that viewers aren't sitting around waiting for it to happen. As clever as it is, however, that's the point at which the movie starts to spiral out of control. I couldn't help but wonder whether there might not be two better versions of The Visit out there, each battling with the other for screen time in the theatrical cut and both losing the war of attrition. As for Shyamalan's "comeback," there's always next time - hopefully without the "found footage" shaky-cam and schizophrenic tone.
© 2015 James Berardinelli