“I see old people.”
If there’s someone in Hollywood who can direct kids in a way that doesn’t make you cringe or say ‘aww’, then that someone is M Night Shyamalan, something he made pretty evident in his debut The Sixth Sense. Rising to cult fame with the psychological horror that spawned a generation of twist endings, Shyamalan’s career in film is now seen a Greek tragedy for which one need not look beyond his latest products, The Last Airbender and the phenomenal lullaby that is After Earth. Today, the movies of the director who gave us Unbreakable are received with the same taste as Michael Bay’s, and it is for no other reason that The Visit failed to incite the hype or speculation that is should be accustomed to. It is a tale of video-footage horror that parallels the ridiculous premise of Hansel and Gretel, and delivers punches of fear and laughter with the same ‘oomph’. The film understands itself for what it is, and almost too cleverly blends the comedy and screams in a character-intensive story that leaves its audience with an uncertain taste of excitement that never quits to please.
Becca and Tyler are children to a mother who ran away from her folks at the dusk of her teenage years, who are now taking off for the Pennsylvania farm to meet their grandparents for the first time. Clearly the more apprehensive one at first, the mother keeps questioning her sending the kids away just so she could enjoy a vacation with her boyfriend. The film is presented in the most clichéd horror trope in recent years; direction by found footage which won over audiences with its realism – and producers with its economical expenses – when The Blair Witch Project hit the screens in 1999. Becca is an avid videographer who has inflicted the hobby on her brother as well; and takes her camera(s) with her everywhere she goes, which happens to also include Pop-pop’s and Nana’s farmhouse. Assisted by her brother, she sets about taking in the lives and words of their grandparents through interviews which we find spliced throughout the film. The film follows the two kids as they bear witness to the strangest happenings that probably make up most of kids’ nightmares: old people can get really mortifying when they need to.
I can see now that my earlier statement about the found-footage nature of the film may have thrown off some readers, perhaps previously irked by movies such as As Above So Below, The Gallows or any of the Paranormal Activitys. One of the most inexplicable talents in the hand of Shyamalan – besides the incredible talent for original tales – is his ability to breathe new air into something that might have been done a million times before, just so the million-and-first time is something special. This is exactly what we see him do here to the found footage genre: by taking its best parts and advantage to the very end, he elevates the film beyond the routine, casually executed affair. For one, the realism in style is maintained throughout, where at no point we find it inconceivable that the footage could be actually Becca’s work, given the characters fleshed out in so subtle a manner. While most filmmakers’ affinity for the genre comes from its near zero costs and low requirement of skill, Shyamalan is able to pull out all stops and put the genre to maximum use: making it clear that his choice of direction was more intended than compelled. What we see him use effectively more than anything else is the limited vision offered by the camera frame, and the advantages of restricted visuals is used not for cheap jump scares but carefully placed, genuine creeps. Unlike others of the same feather, every movement of the camera carries gravity and purpose to it, while still maintaining oddball realism around the characters.
The child actors who play Becca and Tyler, and serve as our eyes and ears into this strange world of grandpa-diapers and broken-down barns are surprisingly real and layered characters who translate these emotions well, even at the handicap of a shaky handheld. It is clear that they have been put through a lot, and this shows from the very first scene where the kids – almost playing parent to mom – sends her away on vacation with an understanding that is beyond their years. Throughout the film, the characters do something that horror film characters almost always fail to do: hold onto their brains. Despite whether you consider that a jab at characters that voluntarily split up and serve themselves to the waiting murderer, as well as the zombie-saturation in the genre, The Visit holds up on both counts with sensible protagonists that don’t make you slap your forehead every few minutes, and not being a Z-film. That last part isn’t some latent hatred of zombie-fare surfacing, but merely my satisfaction with a story that feels different from the archetypes that tend to get copied. The little distaste I may hold for zombies too comes from seeing the unwritten rule at work: if you want money in exchange for your horror film, you need to cling on to nightmares and creatures that have haunted the silver-screen for decades. It just makes you appreciate the few that surface now and then with ideas and a story that took birth in the writer’s mind and not from his memory of what has been shown to bring home the cash.
Like I said before, what Shyamalan used to be known for was a vision for storytelling that made every film different from anything else before it. Justifying the comment of ‘return to form’, The Visit reflects this sentiment in bounds as he draws out a peculiar tone that may swing both comedy and horror at the same time. Every ‘big moment’ in the film manages not just to scare the bejeesus out of us, but also leans toward a weird comedic undertone that we can’t help let free a chuckle. Known from his debut as the prince of strange and Twilight Zone-ish things, Shyamalan delves deeper still into his fevered imagination to construct this premise that is equal parts bloodcurdling and hilarious. It’s the kind of film that has you at one moment spooked, and the next, throwing your head back and guffawing; and yet you can’t help but feel that it was intended so. That is what sets apart the masters from the rest: a sense of awareness of the plot and situation that shows a true weaver of the fine web: and a storyteller is what M Night Shyamalan is, above all else. The blend of comedy and horror at play here is detached and does not carry with it the obvious laughs that Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead, or any of the other goliaths of the genre thrive in, and instead is reminiscent of the cleverness of Scream. A risky attempt that could have gone horribly wrong, maybe this success will shake some sense into his head and have him revert to original stories through which he can confidently channel his vision? Only time – a year to be precise, with his next project due in 2016 – can tell, but the future certainly does look brighter.
With a horror premise as strange as this one, the actual screams themselves are reliant on Pop-pop and Nana, the ominous third rule on the poster itself hinting at something sinister. If Stephen King’s It birthed a generation afraid to sit in a tent and watch painted people fall over, The Visit is sure to at least make you keep a closer eye on any pensioners you may find going about their daily chores. Pop-pop keeps making mysterious trips to the shed, and Nana just isn’t her daytime self once the clock strikes 9:30 pm. To carry a story that can so easily slide either way is no simple task, and in this particular case requires a level of creepy discomfort that wipes your laughter away once they start. Portrayed by Peter McRobbie (whom we’ll see again in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies releasing this week) and Deanna Dunagan, these are clearly the creepiest grandparents ever put on film (or at least in all I’ve seen) who make their audience feel like helpless children under their care. McRobbie has a tired swagger about him that imparts an unsettling tone to every word he utters, which somehow pronounces equivocation. Dunagan is just magnificent in her performance, which is unsettling to the core and makes Pop-pop seem like safer haven. With a face ready to wear the most twisted of expressions at the turn of the moment, most of the shock-scares in the film are her courtesy.
Strangely enough, as was present in Shyamalan’s earlier work, there is always a simpler human emotion at play, and this one is between the females of the family: from Nana to mom to Becca, there is always at least unspoken conversation about the event that perhaps affected the three of them the most. This unspoken conversation rises to words in the form of Becca’s staged interviews with Nana, and a particularly powerful scene where Becca confronts the woman about her daughter. Shyamalan’s ingenuity comes to the forefront in his use of the faculties presented to him through the found-footage method: as he uses the scenes where Becca tinkers with her equipment to add layers to her character. She is a broken daughter who, as a result of the egos of her parents and grandmother, now despises herself and has cornered herself into self-denial. It is a beautiful image to paint in the interludes between shrieks, and grounds the story in a reality of actual human emotion and neglect. While the emotional undertones do elevate the story and add much-needed layers to the premise, what truly sets the film apart from anything else in its genre is Shyamalan’s vision. Understanding and manipulating the proximity of laughs and screams in our reaction to the horror genre, he intentionally confuses the two through The Visit. This is just the right film to come around in this age of scare-less films (all of which for some reason revolve around demonic possession) and ones whose central characters are a saw and gratuitous violence (you are free to replace that long series of words with ‘Eli Roth’); one which has its fun with the possibilities of its peculiar plot and isn’t afraid to make fun of itself and serve up scares in dollops. It is also a turn from the excruciatingly meaningful and self-declared seriousness for its director, which can only be for the better. Entertaining from start to finish – and with surprisingly elegant emotional depth – The Visit does not promise to have you screaming through its runtime, but it does not come up short on having you in fits of one kind or the other.