“The Visit” Review. A discussion on M. Night’s career, now featuring Yahtzee!

Fair warning: Spoilers for all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies abound!

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Josh Trank, who made a nice name for himself with the movie Chronicle, parlayed that film into a gig directing a major comic book movie and a deal to shoot one of the first new Star Wars movies to be released in the next few years. He then exposed himself as a hack, a difficult filmmaker to work with and someone who—judging by his Fantastic Four movie and his being fired from directing the aforementioned Star Wars film—was a one-hit wonder unable to live up to his first big breakout moment.

Now let’s talk about M. Night Shyamalan.

Here’s a guy who blew everyone away with the Sixth Sense. The movie, and its now-legendary twist-ending has become a victim of its own fame, but in the moment it was hailed as a revelation for the horror/suspense genre. It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. The good ones, too: Best Picture, Director, original screenplay, supporting actor/actress. It wasn’t the first ghost story with a twist ending, or the first horror movie with a child in the lead. What set the movie apart was how perfectly the entire production was crafted. Acting, cinematography, the tightness of the script and the perfect balance between terror and tenderness all worked together to allow the movie to rise above the myriad of horror films that pop up every Autumn.

From there he made “Unbreakable.” The movie was probably a little too out there for a very creative director who had suddenly become a mainstream name. And make no mistake, Shyamalan’s distinctive name was the real top-billing for the movie. As with Sixth Sense, the film was beautifully shot, had another great script and some good acting. M. Night looked like he would be a major player in Hollywood for years to come, even though Unbreakable didn’t hit (initially) the way Sixth Sense did.

Signs was a much more “commercial” movie than Unbreakable. By that I mean it’s plot was easier to condense into a 30 second TV commercial. It made more money than Unbreakable and was initially better-received, but over time the perception of it has suffered, while Unbreakable has been hailed as perhaps his best movie. Either way, Signs was a hit and gave M Night the cache to work without too much micro-managing by Touchstone Pictures or Hollywood Studios (the Disney-owned companies that produced his first three hit films).

The result of his creative blank cheque was “The Village,” the movie with which M. Night solidified himself (intentionally or not) as “that director with the twist-endings to his movie). What’s interesting about that label is, Unbreakable really didn’t have a “twist” ending. It had a grand reveal. It had a plot-turning moment (which makes sense, considering it was originally conceived as the first part of a trilogy). Sixth Sense had a real, “The Usual Suspects” sort of twist ending. Signs had a very distinctive ending too, but I wouldn’t call it a “twist” so much as “the climax of long-running rube-goldberg-like plot machinations). The ending to Signs wasn’t a twist, it was a contrived pay off to several smaller and seemingly irrelevant plot contrivances. Signs’ ending was brilliantly shot but made no sense (unless you subscribe to the theory that the “aliens” were actually demons, and the water was “holy water” which is why it killed them but not all the other water that’s all over the planet…if that’s your theory then forget what I said, the ending is great).

Naturally the casual audience ate it up while over time it became a drag on the picture. By the time hype was being built up for “The Village” everyone assumed there would be some kind of a “weird” ending, be it a twist or something unorthodox. Rather than go against the grain and make the actual twist be that there is no twist, Shyamalan gave the people what they expected. And it sucked. I remember people laughing derisively at it, during the finale and walking to their cars. His movie was already not great, but the ending turned it—and his career—into a joke.

And things only went further downhill.

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The once-promising director, whose movies had started to become events unto themselves, was now the face of ridicule for riding a one-trick pony one too many times. Even though, again, it was really only his second twist ending, it was such a…fabricated(?)…sort of twist that it instantly ruined most people’s opinions of the movie. By the time he got around to releasing a movie without a twist ending (his next one, Lady in the Water), audiences had stopped caring. Not only that, but Lady in the Water, ending or not, was just a bad movie all around. It was dull, convoluted and weird without having enough personality to make its oddness a virtue.

From disappointing to flailing, M Night’s spiral continued with “The Happening.” Unable to help himself, the “twist” returned with a mighty vengeance, wreaking havoc on all your movie-enjoying senses: Here it turns twists out that all the plants of the earth are getting back at us for all of our pollution or some such. I don’t know, the movie was a disaster. Shyamalan by this point had lost it both creatively and technically. His early movies were the total package. Then, he struggled to seal the deal with a satisfying ending, but at least the rest of the movie looked and sounded good. By this point, his movies were dull, dimwitted and insulting. They were just as boring to sit through and ugly to watch as they were frustratingly dumb.

So naturally he followed it up with a 150 million dollar bomb that ruined any chance The Last Airbender had at becoming a major live action franchise. That movie was one of the darkest, dankest, blandest, most lifeless movies ever based on a a bright and vividly drawn anime…or just in general, depending on your mood.

Though he technically followed up The Last Airbender with the Will Smith-led “After Earth,” M. Night actually wrote and produced the low budget horror film “Devil” around the same time as Last Airbender. With its simple concept and conventional scares, it was a departure from the director’s wheelhouse, but was very much in line with the direction of horror movies at the time. It wasn’t a horrible film, either, so if you were following his career as a fan, you might have seen the film and thought the director was on an upswing.

And then he went and made After Earth. The pseudo-Scientology-laced film (if you want to look at it that way…I don’t: I prefer to see it as a father-son vanity project) was panned by critics and ignored by audiences, becoming Will Smith’s worst big-budget failure. Even though this was the first one not to have Shyamalan’s name as part of the promotion of the film, most everyone knew it—like Last Airbender—was his picture, and its failure only continued the director’s slide.

And now we have The Visit.

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The movie is produced by Jason Blum and his “Blumhouse Productions” label. They are company whose films Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring, Sinister and others have redefined the Horror genre. Their movies will be remembered by this generation the way my generation thinks of Wes Craven’s movies. What do you call it, then, when M. Night Shyamalan—the man whose first horror movie was an Academy Award-nominated juggernaut—is now working for the new kids on the block? Is that “irony?” Is it “poetic justice?”

Let’s just call it “a nice fit,” because this movie is M.Night’s first since Signs that I walked away from without saying “it sucked.”

Taking Blumhouse’s strongly branded (some might say “cookie-cutter) style of horror movie and giving it to a guy like M. Night Shyamalan was a perfect decision. As a result of his partnership with Blumhouse, this movie is the most focused and “conventional” film the director has done since Signs. It’s also his best since that movie came out thirteen years ago.

Once upon a time Shyamalan had a brilliant eye and a great touch with the lens and when he allows himself the opportunity, his old talents return here in full force. I say “when he allows himself” because the movie is presented in the “found footage/handheld/personal diary” style, which means a lot of shaky camera work, sudden shifts in and out of focus, heavy breathing, and all the things that made teenagers puke in the theaters back in 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came out.

I’m not going to criticize the style itself too harshly. It’s a bit hackneyed in how over-used it is these days, but if used right—and there is one brief moment in this movie that uses it brilliantly—it’s a style that can enhance the horror experience. It does have its limitations, however, and they are on display in this movie. For one thing, you have the constant reminder that “in real life, people in danger would not keep filming.” To its credit, the screenplay offers plenty of rationale to excuse the cameras always being on during the scary parts. Still, there are moments (such as one suddenly-scary game of hide-and-seek) where you can’t help but think “is that kid running away from the scary person while holding the camera upright in his hand?” It’s not realistic is all I’m saying.

Sometimes you just want a movie that’s shot like a movie. M. Night’s early films are beautiful to look at, and there was a lot of potential in the snow covered setting of this movie for some great shots, but they are too few and are lost amidst the various bobs and weaves of the handheld camera. Curiously, though, there are moments—such as establishing shots and B-roll footage—that is conventionally shot and looks very nice. It makes me wish a director would simply shoot the movie traditionally and just switch to a handheld take when needed, just for effect.

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Shall we talk about the movie? It’s not horrible. It doesn’t suck. It’s a perfectly adequate motion picture.

But it’s not actually good.

There are three things going on in this film:

1) The main plot -- the kids staying over at their long-lost grandparents house
2) The sub plot -- the kids privately coping with the dad who has abandoned them
3) The twist plot -- the mystery of what's going on with the grandparents

THE MAIN PLOT

The main plot revolves around the week-long stay at the grandparents house. Each day is kicked off with a “Kubrick/Shining” title card informing us of the day of the week. Minor, unsettling music bubbles under these reveals, but there’s not much more thrills than that to be had. You see, the biggest problem with the movie, despite its moments of adequacy and its obvious competence, is that it’s not very scary. If it’s trying to be a scary movie, it’s just not scary enough. If it’s trying to be a thriller, there simply aren’t enough thrills. I don’t know; maybe I’m jaded, but when the only real scary moment comes as a result of someone literally jumping in front of the camera and screaming (which is as derivative as a jump-scare can get), your scary movie needs work.

There are isolated moments that, in a better movie, would have played a lot better: The money shot that the trailer and commercials overused is the “would you get inside the oven and clean it for me” bit. This was played twice in the film to great effect. There’s a moment when granny is laughing at nothing while rocking in her chair. There’s a very Blumhouse version of hide-and-seek that offers the first scares of the film and there’s a very fast (almost a split-second) shot of a previously shown bystander hanging from the tree. These are individually well-done moments, but they are too few and far between to create an effectively scary movie. Not to mention any sustained feeling of dread is negated by humor both spoken and thematic.

THE SUB PLOT

The sub plot takes us through the pain felt by a mother and her two kids over the abandonment of their husband/father. The mom is sad but projecting happiness, the son is in denial and the daughter is bitter. By the end the son comes to accept the situation and the lead character—the daughter, Olivia—learns to let go of her bitterness.

The mom however, never really grows or develops; she just skips to being a grown and developed person at the end. Granted, she’s a minor character with only a few minutes of screen-time, but her troubles with her parents and her runaway husband are the over-arching elements to the movie. By the end of it, though, she never really changes as a character. She gives a teary-eyed speech and opens up about leaving her mom and dad for the man who would eventually leave her, and that leads her to plead with her daughter to let go of her bitterness, but other than the obvious “my parents are dead and their murderers almost killed my kids” motivation, we’re not given any reason why she suddenly changed.

Also, the twist sort of hollows out whatever power might have been had at the end of the movie, because the grandmother’s teary-eyed statement of “I forgive her” (which  Olivia holds up as the “elixir” to bring her mom back to happiness) is rendered moot when the climax of the movie happens…

THE TWIST PLOT

What worked?

…Next.

What didn’t?

…All of it.

You have to shut off your sense of logic and reason in order to arrive at this movie’s twist with a smile on your face. The twist is that the grandparents are not actually their grandparents; they are two old people who escaped from a mental institution, killed their grandparents and masqueraded as them.

If you even try to think about that, you will immediately start to question this and that and other things that will unravel the entire plot. For example, the kids trip to see their grandparents had to be arranged with so many variables happening in just such a way in order for the truth not to be revealed. In the beginning: The kids would have to have seen no photos of their real grandparents. That’s it. If just that happens, the jig is up. And sure, the mom has a beef with her parents, but I have family albums that feature childhood pictures of my mom and grandparents, or my dad and cousins. Are we to believe the mom, who is apparently racked with guilt over the way her relationship with her parents ended, just removed every trace of every photo of her parents, even the ones that just feature them incidentally, so that the kids have no idea what they look like? Okay.

For another: The “grandparents” are waiting to pick up the kids at the train station. In broad daylight. Is there no one from the Institution looking for them? Shouldn’t the police be involved in this?

Want another? At the end of the movie the mom calls the local police to go rescue the kids but discovers (to her horror!) that the police are all busy and that she needs to leave a message? What is this Springfield? Is Chief Wiggum on the other side of that busy tone?

And another: There is no wifi after bedtime at 9:30pm.  What? I mean sure you can unplug the modem (and it was established that there is no 4G or anything like it out in the sticks), but that would raise suspicion immediately. Yet on night-one Olivia just casually points out how much it sucks that there’s no internet after 9:30pm, like it’s on a government-set timer. That’s not how the internet works. That’s not how ‘merica works, darnit.

Also, throughout the movie we are led to believe these two old people are part of some cult, or even—as alluded to in one story told by the old lady—possessed by aliens in some way. Instead they are just ordinary escaped inmates of an insane asylum. And that’s fine if you want to go that route, but then why is “9:30” emphasized so much as the time to go to bed? The commercials, trailers, even the cool poster really hit on that time…

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But it turns twists out that it’s just an arbitrary time that is offered by granddad because granny goes batty after nightfall (nevermind the fact that 9:30 is well after the start of nightfall). Also the granny finds the hidden camera easily, leading us to believe she has some paranormal abilities. But instead she just…what? Saw it? Is that it? In between her spider crawling and banging doors she happened to notice the camera that was hidden in the bookshelf? Does being crazy give her heightened eyesight?

And is the twist really as simple as “they’re just crazy murderers”? I guess so. So the granddad sneaking off into the barn to discard his soiled diapers, the grandma projectile vomiting and scratching naked on the doors, the long stares into a deep well, all of that is just a series of red herrings. Except they aren’t red herrings. A “red herring” in filmmaking is when you lead the viewer to think one thing, distracting them with apparent-clues that point to one conclusion before you (twist) reveal something else entirely. In this case, we see the grandparents acting crazy and know that their behavior is crazy. We know it. We just don’t know why. There are all kinds of reasons as to why someone might be acting crazy. As it turns out the reason they were acting crazy is because they’re crazy. Nothing more.

That’s not a twist. That’s exposition.

The only twist is that they’re crazy and not their grandparents. But who cares. Even if they were their grandparents they’re still crazy (and suddenly murderous in the climax). The nature of your assailants identity is purely an academic discussion when you’re being held hostage and forced to have a poopy diaper shoved into your face.

CONCLUSION:

Despite my overall disappointment, there were two moments I loved: The best moment of the movie comes when crazy granny finds the hidden camera and carries it with her into the kitchen, where she takes a large butcher’s knife and walks upstairs to the room where the kids are sleeping. Following the villain with the handheld camera is a great use of the “found footage” style, and one I hadn’t seen before. We get to be “in on” the horror in way that we aren’t when the screen usually serves as the eyes of the victim. We watch her banging on the door with the knife handle, knowing that the kids on the other side of the door don’t know what’s happening. Usually the “handheld” style gives us insight into the protagonist and hides the villain from us (in order to have the monster pop out and scare us). Here the tables were turned and the good guys were hidden. It was an inspired moment, but that’s all it was: A moment.

The other great bit was the Yahtzee game from hell. At that point in the movie, the villains had already been found out and the heroes were just looking for their window of opportunity to escape. There was so much potential for either black comedy or suspense had either been played up, but instead it was just a few seconds of terror and a few seconds of humor and then the movie rolled on. It was good while it lasted though. It just wasn’t good enough to save the picture.

~

6/10 – I’ve seen worse, and oh so much worse from this filmmaker. The script had a lot of holes, but the movie was at least—on a technical level—a return to form for the director.

I mean if you had told me after I almost walked out halfway through After Earth, that M. Night Shyamalan would make a movie with the producers of Insidious and The Conjuring, and that the climax of the film would be a tension-fueled game of Yahtzee, I’d say “I have to see that movie.” I know I would, because I saw the trailer for Krampus and it looks wonderfully stupid. I can’t wait to see it.

But now that I’ve seen this movie, the only feeling I have is “at least it didn’t really really suck.” The fact that this movie is at least adequate is a step in the right direction.

More of this, please, M. Night.

~

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