The Visit (2015)

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*. This is a movie I liked more than I thought I would. I still didn’t love it, but I found it worth watching.
*. I was initially put off at the discovery that it was going to be yet another shaky-cam, found-footage, amateur-documentary horror film. I thought these things were finally dying out, like the latest go-round of 3-D.
*. I suppose the popularity (though not the origin) of this form of storytelling goes back to the success of The Blair Witch Project. Since then we’ve had the Rec franchise, the Paranormal Activity franchise, Cloverfield, and what seem to have been dozens of others.
*. The drawbacks to the found-footage films are obvious: despite making an appeal to a kind of raw verisimilitude they’re actually quite artificial and (especially in their final minutes) unconvincing. They also put a real cramp on a filmmaker’s sense of style, limiting them in what they can do (quite often, for example, they have no score at all).
*. On the plus side, however, you gain a vital sense of immediacy and it allows you to film on the cheap. The Visit was shot on a shoestring $5 million budget (with Shyamalan picking up the tab himself) and would go on to do nearly $100 million in box office. That’s not a Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity return on investment (the two most profitable films ever made), but it’s not too bad. So we probably will see still more of these.
*. Of course by now the name of M. Night Shyamalan is synonymous with a twist ending, which has become a self-defeating brand. Once you’re alert to this, the twist here is pretty obvious, and I had clued into it before the kids even arrived at the farmhouse. The initial set-up is suspicious enough.
*. Shyamalan thought he’d have problems finding the right tone, variously describing his efforts at cutting the film as walking the line between art house and comedy and pure horror and pure comedy. Mark Kermode, for one, didn’t think he found a balance, and was unable to figure out if it was a horror film or a comedy.
*. I didn’t see this as a problem. Yes, there are some lame attempts at comic relief (mostly Tyler’s awful rapping), and some black humour (like the children being forced to play Yahtzee), but I always thought of it as a thriller, and for the most part it was quite effective in building suspense and dread.

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*. The reason it’s so effective, but also part of its problem, is that old people really are scary. There’s nothing good you can say about physical and mental decline. It’s not politically correct to admit it, but the elderly scare the hell out of us just by being old, reminding us of our own inevitable mortality.
*. I say this is also part of the problem the film has because I’m not sure what we’re to make of Nana and Pop Pop at the end. On the one hand they are clearly villains. Of course they’re murderers, and they threaten the lives of the two children. So they are the source of the film’s horror.
*. On the other hand, the kids aren’t that sympathetic. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (a pair of Australian actors, by coincidence) are fine, but the parts aren’t very well written. They are neither likeable nor believable, which is a bad combination. Kermode found them “incandescently irritating.” Meanwhile, I think we do sympathize with Nana and Pop Pop. Sure they’re scary people, but they mainly need help. They need to go back to the hospital and get back on their meds. They’re not psychopaths, they’re just old and have dementia.
*. So how do we feel when they both get killed? Sure it was self defence, but has justice been done? The ending seems very weak to me. In the first place it makes no sense the kids don’t both run away when they have the chance. This would be both the obvious and easy thing to do. Instead they even go back in the house and keep up the subterfuge of their not being alert to anything being wrong. Then there is the matter, already noted, of having to believe that both final battles are captured on film, in ways that provide psychological closure for the kids (Becca kills Nana with a mirror while Tyler, in a truly ridiculous moment, overcomes his football phobia and tackles Pop Pop).
*. The message? You really oughta stay in touch with family. This is the original sin, but despite it everything still works out for the best. All of the old people are dead, as they should be. Mom is back from her sleazy singles cruise. Becca can doll herself up in her mirror like a normal teen and Tyler can bust his terrible rhymes about what shit tastes like. Maybe this is a comedy, after all. It sure looks like a happy ending.

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