2 February, LI A.S.
My Thoughts on M. Knight Shyamalan’s
As much as I love the Horror genre, and find it overall highly underrated by critics, not many Horror movies have excited me the past several years. There are exceptions here and there, of course, The Conjuring series, Insidious, and The Cabin in the Woods being prominent examples. There have sadly been too many uninspired remakes and otherwise uninteresting movies built on a rickety structure of cheap scares and genre fads, without any real meat behind them to sink your teeth into. Shymalan’s The Visit, by contrast, is a masterfully written and performed scary story which places its trust in the fundamentals and then executes those fundamentals exceedingly well. I found myself fully invested, and on the edge of my seat, nearly all the way through, and now I’m cautiously optimistic (and hopeful!) that this 2015 masterpiece could represent a return to form for Shyamalan.
I recommend watching the trailer if you haven’t, but the premise of the movie is fairy tale simple, and intriguing. Two teenage siblings from Philadelphia go for a five-day visit with their maternal grandparents, while their divorced mother is on vacation with her new boyfriend. The teens, Becca and Tyler, have never met their grandparents, from whom their mother has been estranged since she left home fifteen years ago. We see the story through the lens of Becca’s camera, which she brings on the train trip out to Nana and Pop Pop’s rural home to document this family event. Early on, we see that the grandparents, while warm, friendly, (Nana bakes a lot!) and excited to spend time with their grandkids, are also weird. They quickly display a tendency for doing strange, even threatening, things, especially after 9:30 P.M. Our teenage heroes are left to figure out what’s going on, and what secrets their mysterious grandparents are hiding, even as the horror begins to unfold, and the isolation feels more suffocating with each passing day …
Oh, and their grandparents tell them right away that whatever the teens do, to not enter the basement due to toxic mold. And that 9:30 is bedtime, because, well, old people go to bed early.
Getting into the topic of why this movie is so good, let’s first talk about one of the most bedrock of movie fundamentals: the acting. The four principal cast members are: Olivia DeJonge as fifteen-year-old Becca, who is smart, insecure, and has film-directing ambitions, Ed Oxenbould as her thirteen-year-old brother Tyler, who is confidently goofy, germaphobic, and an aspiring rapper, Deanna Dunagan as “Nana,” who is an almost stereotypical doting and cheerful (until she isn’t,) grandmother, and Peter McRobbie as “Pop Pop,” who is, well, grandfatherly, but also clearly hiding something, or some-things.
All four of these actors do an incredible job. The movie gives a lot of time for the kids to interact, and the writing and the actors combine to make those interactions realistic and entertaining, whether that’s Tyler’s cringey-yet-charming freestyle rapping or intense scenes of the duo anxiously attempting to unravel the mystery of “what the Hell is up with Nana and Pop Pop and their moldy basement.” When you give actors so young so much screen time, it can often lead to shortcomings, either from the kids not being able to convincingly pull off the intensity of highly emotional scenes, or sloppy writing dictating an unrealistic and corny portrayal of adolescents. But in the case of The Visit, the performances cause us to experience a genuine investment in our young heroes, including their relation to each other and their mother, the sour memories haunting their backstories, and their initial curiosity, and later mortal terror and will to survive.
Meanwhile, Dunagan and McRobbie blow it out of the water as Nana and Pop Popincreasingly concerned and probing questions. And, without spoiling anything, they do a great job of acting truly, off-puttingly, disturbingly, weird.
So we have those four characters interacting through most of the movie, in pretty much this one farmhouse location. The limited setting and small cast are major components of what makes this movie so interesting and scary on a fundamental level. The farmhouse is a long way from the nearest town. Mom’s out of the country on vacation. Nana and Pop Pop have become increasingly socially isolated, limiting any contact with potential saviors. What’s Pop Pop hiding in the shed? And, other than mold, what else is lurking down those basement stairs? The movie sets up a seemingly simple story, tells that story in such a way that keeps us invested and guessing, and makes it scary through basic childhood fears, looming unknowns, isolation, the masterful use of disturbing imagery and ideas, and a well-executed use of understated, yet hard-hitting, gore.
Being a Shymalan movie, of course, there’s a big twist. No, I’m not going to spoil it. But yes, it is amazing. Sixth Sense amazing. It’s the kind of twist that makes you stand up, eyes wide, hands pressed to your head, saying “Fuuuuuuuuuuuug I did NOT see that coming,” instantly followed by, “But what’s gonna happen next?! How are they getting out of this one?!” Seriously, it’s good. The movie throws enough information at you that you could piece it together before the revelation, but almost certainly won’t. And that, I say, is the best kind of twist.
In conclusion, I liked The Visit a lot, and recommend it to anyone who liked Shyamalan’s earlier work and has been waiting for a comeback, and to anyone who appreciates originality, refreshing simplicity, and deeply human characters in their Horror movies. It’s intriguing, it’s disturbing, and it’s bloody entertaining. The movie doesn’t rely on cheap scares, overused gimmicks, or gore for the sake of gore. My fervent hope is that Shyamalan makes more like this. I haven’t seen his latest, Split, yet, but it’s gotten a good reception so far and sounds up my alley. Great job, Shyamalan. Keep it up!