Monday, November 2, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: The Visit

The Visit was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Wow, has any director ever had as rapid a fall from grace as Shyamalan? He hit a home run his first time at bat back in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. The film was a surprise megahit, grossing over $600 million against its $40 million budget, and firmly established Shyamalan as an up and coming powerhouse director in Hollywood. Unfortunately The Sixth Sense turned out to be more curse than blessing, as he's never quite been able to match that early success.

Shyamalan has fast become the Dr. Richard Daystrom of Hollywood (one hundred points to anyone who gets that reference!). He peaked way too early, as each of his followup efforts has been more critically panned then the last and have continued to make less and less money. Yet somehow, against all logic and reason, he keeps on getting work.

Additionally, The Sixth Sense pigeonholed Shyamalan as "The Guy Who Does The Surprise Twist Endings," as audiences expected each subsequent film to feature a similar startling climax. Unfortunately the problem with surprise endings is they're not hard to figure out if you're expecting one.

After several spectacular flops in a row, The Visit seems to be Shyamalan's attempt at dialing things down and getting back to his roots. It's a simple, low budget film that I'm sure he hopes will get his career back on track. Did he succeed? Eh... the best I can say is that it's OK. It's marred by the cursed found footage format, annoying child characters, a dull middle and a puzzling identity crisis. Other than that, it's not bad!

I'm honestly not sure what this film is trying to be. Is it a horror movie or a comedy? All horror films need a couple of scenes of comic relief to help break up the tension, but The Visit goes way overboard. It almost seems like a black comedy, but I have my doubts Shyamalan intended it that way. For every genuinely creepy moment it manages to generate, it turns right around and undoes them with an ill-conceived comedy bit.

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD, INCLUDING A REVEAL OF THE SURPRISING TWIST ENDING! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

The Plot:
As the film opens, fifteen year old Rebecca and thirteen year old Tyler are leaving for a week long trip to visit their grandparents. The kids' mother Paula eloped when she was a teen, and hasn't seen or spoken with her parents for the past fifteen years. This visit will be the first time the kids have ever met their grandparents. Remember that, it's important!

Rebecca is a film school hopeful and is documenting the trip with her video camera. Her brother Tyler fancies himself a would-be rap star, which isn't the least bit annoying. That was sarcasm, son.

The grandparents, known as Nana and Pop Pop, meet Rebecca and Tyler at the train station and take them to their isolated farmhouse. When the kids ask what they do, they mention they work at a local mental hospital a few days a week as counselors. They give the kids a couple of house rules: bedtime is at 9:30 pm, and never go into the basement, which is full of mold. Hmm...

Later that night Rebecca sneaks out of her room to grab a late night snack. She sees Nana walking through the kitchen projectile vomiting. The next morning she tells Pop Pop what she saw, and he says Nana just had a short bout with the stomach flu and is fine.

The kids Skype their mother and tell her what's happening. Paula, who's on a cruise with her boyfriend, blows off their concerns and says their grandparents are just old.

The kids begin noticing more bizarre behavior from their grandparents. Nana scratches at the walls while naked, sits in a chair facing a wall while laughing at nothing, and sleepwalks through the house while carrying a large butcher knife. Pop Pop keeps getting dressed for a party that doesn't exist, attacks a random man on the street and sticks a shotgun in his mouth while "cleaning" it.

The kids Skype Paula again and show her footage they've recorded of Nana and Pop Pop's disturbing habits. Paula is terrified when she sees the film, revealing those aren't her parents, and tells the kids to get out of the house immediately. 

Rebecca and Tyler try to leave, but the fake Nana and Pop Pop insist they play Yahtzee. During the game Rebecca excuses herself and goes down into the forbidden basement, where she finds the dead bodies of the real Nana and Pop Pop, along with uniforms from the mental hospital. She realizes that the impostors are mental patients who escaped the hospital, tracked down Nana and Pop Pop, killed them and assumed their identities (for some reason).

Fake Nana and Pop Pop attack the kids and try to kill them. Rebecca manages to stab Fake Nana with a shard of glass from a broken mirror. Tyler overpowers Fake Pop Pop and repeatedly slams his head in the refrigerator door. They run outside just as Paula and the local police arrive.

In a completely unnecessary tag scene, Rebecca interviews her mother for her documentary. Paula says the day she left home, she struck her mother and her father hit her, which is what led to the fifteen years of estrangement. She realizes that her parents immediately forgave her and would have gladly welcomed her back into their lives. She tells the camera (and Rebecca) to "let go of the anger."

In an even more unnecessary credits scene, Tyler performs a mind-numbing rap about overcoming his germophobia or some awful crap.

Thoughts:
• As M. Night Shyamalan twist endings go, this one's fairly simple and pretty well done. The clues are all there, and once you know the secret they're all pretty obvious.

For the record I thought I knew what the twist was going to be, but I guessed wrong. Instead of the grandparents being escaped mental patients, I thought their bizarre behavior would turn out to be fake, as Rebecca edited her footage to make it seem like something was amiss, to spice up her otherwise dull documentary.

• Take a look at that poster. Note that at the top is says, "From the director of The Sixth Sense and Signs."

The Sixth Sense was released in 1999, and Signs in 2002. That's sixteen and thirteen years ago, respectively. Gosh, I wonder why they'd reference movies that came out so long ago? Why don't they trumpet that The Visit is from the visionary director who also gave us such beloved cinematic classics as The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth?

The poster also says The Visit is from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious. I assume they're talking about Jason Blum here. I've brought this up before but it bears repeating— does this trick ever work? I have a feeling the general movie-going public has no clue what a producer actually does. Even if they do, what's the thinking here? That someone will see this poster and say, "Man, that guy that produced the HELL out of Paranormal Activity! This movie must be even better!"

This is technically a found footage film, even though the characters are actually filming a documentary. As such, it contains everything I hate about the genre: shaky camera work, a lack of elaborate makeup and special effects, a dull, grounded story and worst of all, idiotic characters who unrealistically continue filming when they should be running for their lives.

The sooner this miserable film genre dies, the better.

I would have enjoyed the movie much more if it had just been filmed as a traditional narrative. 

• When you write a film containing just five characters, you'd better damn well make sure they're all likable, since the audience will be stuck with them for the majority of the run time. The Visit fails in this regard.

Nana and Pop Pop are weirdos who turn out to be murdering psychopaths, so right off the bat they're out. Paula has a dark undercurrent about her and a convenient tendency to blow off her kids' concerns that made me instantly dislike her. 

Tyler was just plain annoying, as his feeble and dated attempts at 1990s rap were absolutely cringeworthy. Every word out of his mouth seemed like something a clueless adult would think a "cool" kid would say. 

The only halfway likable character in the film was Rebecca. Her pretentious film school schtick seemed somewhat authentic, like something a teen would actually be into. 

• As I said earlier, this film suffers from a serious lack of identity. It's advertised as a horror film, but it contains far more laughs than scares. Was I supposed to be laughing or screaming? I have no idea. Even director M. Night Shyamalan doesn't know. In an interview he admitted that he had trouble keeping the tone consistent throughout the film. No sh*t, M. Night! He claims the first cut resembled an "art house film" (whatever that means), while the second cut became a comedy. He claims he finally struck a balance in the third cut.

Personally I think he needed a fourth cut that toned down the laughs. On the rare occasion he managed to come up with a scene that was genuinely creepy, he immediately undercut it with a lame bit of comedy.

For example, Tyler observes Pop Pop sneaking into a dilapidated shed
several times a day, and sneaks in to investigate. What could be inside the shed? The bodies of Pop Pop's victims? A Satanic altar? Nude photos of Bea Arthur? It's an effectively spooky scene until Tyler discovers Pop Pop is incontinent and is storing his soiled adult diapers in the shed. Com-O-Dee!

Similarly, the kids hear a strange noise in the house at night, and when they slowly open the door they see Nana, completely naked, scratching frantically at the walls. It's a disturbing and horrifying scene, until Tyler runs back to his room shouting, "I'm blind! I'm blind!" after seeing his grandmother naked.

It's hard to take what few scares there are seriously when they're followed by sitcom humor.

• Movie trailers are designed for one reason, and one reason only— to get butts in seats. To that end, trailers will often mislead the audience, promising one kind of film and delivering another. See Crimson Peak for a prime example of this kind of trailer misdirection.

The trailer for The Visit is somewhat guilty of this as well. Take a look at the above image. The scene at the top is taken directly from the trailer. Note how it's been color graded to look dark, moody and spooky, implying in no uncertain terms that this is a horror movie.

Now look at the bottom image, which is how the scene actually looks in the film. Note how bright and cheerful it is. The whole damned movie has this same happy, saturated color palette. 

I have to wonder how many people the trailer lured into the theater, making them think they were in for an unrelenting horror masterpiece instead of a black comedy.

• All through the film Tyler is a germaphobe, unable to touch even a doorknob without covering it with a tissue.

Near the end of the film, Fake Pop Pop shoves a loaded adult diaper in his face, just like Moe throwing a pie at Curly's head. During the end credits, Tyler then raps about how he's no longer afraid of germs.

So there you have it! Apparently the cure for germaphobia is smearing crap on the patient's face!

The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan's attempt at returning to form, but ultimately fails due to its found footage format and a schizophrenic tone. With a normal narrative structure and a focused director, it could have been an effective little thriller. I give it a C+.

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