‘The Visit’

The Visit

The Visit (2015) — Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Kathryn Hahn, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Benjamin Kanes, Celia Keenan-Bolger.

M. Night Shyamalan is back! After taking a steep nose dive with some truly lousy movies that incorporated lame twists (The Village), spoiled brat whining about film critics (Lady in the Water), and just plain ridiculousness (The Happening), he has returned with The Visit, a found footage thriller/horror film that seems to work pretty well on the surface. After taking a closer look, however, I have some concerns with how the film exploits dementia in the elderly for its scares.

Siblings Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are heading out for a week-long visit with their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). The kids have never met them because their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn), after leaving home during some tense family drama, has been estranged from them for the past fifteen years. Rebecca, a budding filmmaker, is eager to meet them and plans to make a documentary of their visit with the goal of initiating a reconciliation between her mother and grandparents. But as their visit begins they notice some odd behavior. Nana has mood swings and wanders around the house after bedtime doing strange things like projectile vomiting and scratching at the walls. Their mother, via Skype, brushes these incidents off as simple old people behavior but things gradually become more deranged and sinister. What is going on with Nana and Pop-Pop? Why are they so damned scary?

Part of why they’re so damned scary is because of how great Dunagan and McRobbie are in their roles as Nana and Pop-Pop. Deanna Dunagan provides some of the most effective scares, including a great sequence of hide and seek under the house, where there is surprisingly a lot of room. She sneaks into the game and crawls around after the kids, who thought they were playing by themselves, in a creepy manner that echoes Samara from The Ring. Later on she provides a fantastic jump scare that I won’t spoil. She succeeds in not only scaring the hell out of us but in evoking empathy for her during a couple of strong emotional scenes. McRobbie, who is one of those “oh yeah, that guy” character actors, is also great. He has a disturbing scene where he’s caught with a gun in his mouth and his calm but guilty reaction to being found is heartbreaking.

I liked the kids too, although not all reviewers seem to agree with me. Ed Oxenbould plays a boy who fancies himself a rapper, even going so far as to compare himself to Tyler the Creator. Of course this innocent teenager is nothing of the kind but his raps are funny in their own way. Oxenbould delivers them perfectly, with the kind of awkward genuineness that makes him endearing while avoiding being over the top or planting his tongue too deeply into his cheek. I found it charming but I gather that others found him annoying. Near the end of the film he has a scene that made me genuinely concerned for the character’s mental state. Olivia DeJonge plays Rebecca, the aspiring filmmaker whose camera and laptop provides the documentary footage for the movie. She’s not just slapping together a simple home video, she wants to create a piece of art that will reunite her mother and grandparents. The caring relationship she and her brother have carries the movie a long way. I enjoyed being around these kids.

Shyamalan does a good job of balancing the frightening scenes with humor but the screenplay isn’t perfect. He has a habit of building character traits early on in his films that connect too neatly at the end (remember “Swing away, Merrill”?) and he employs that device here. I won’t bother explaining further but you’ll know what I’m talking about when it comes. It’s something that worked better in Signs, where it felt like pieces of a puzzle were coming together, but in The Visit it’s a poor attempt at character development.

Of course there’s a classic patented Shyamalan twist. If you don’t see it coming, which I didn’t, it’s an effective one though I suppose someone watching closer would ferret it out ahead of time. The tension ramps up significantly after the reveal and from that point the film becomes the rollercoaster ride that made it so successful for me and the audience I was with. I came out of the theater thrilled with the experience but upon later reflection there’s something that didn’t sit right with me about it.

It’s hard to go too deeply into it without risking spoiling the surprise. In a way it removes some of the depressing aspects of what occurs beforehand but the overall feel of the movie, even before then, is borderline exploitational. The tone seems to be one of “Look how scary old people are!” The kids in The Visit presumably had little experience with older relatives, which makes their fear and uncertainty understandable. The film exhibits an awareness of the real difficulties experienced by the elderly, which makes this approach of using dementia to scare the audience even more bothersome. Shyamalan has stated that he cut this film a couple of ways, first as an art house film, then as a comedy, and then finally as a thriller. It makes me wonder if he confronted these issues in the first cut in a way that came across more tastefully.

Maybe I’m over thinking the whole thing or maybe I should be angrier. I admit that I had a great time coming out of it, impressed as I was with The Visit‘s clever, crowd-pleasing sequences and some great performances. Still, I can’t shake this gross feeling that Shyamalan was using his gerontophobia to elicit a few scares.

If you don’t mind spoiling the twist, the author of this article talks about the same kinds of problems I had with the movie.

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