Friday, September 18, 2015

'The Visit' is a Step in the Right Direction for M. Night Shyamalan [Guest Poster: Jon]

It may seem hard to believe, but Shyamalan once proved he was a competent filmmaker. Even though the twist has been spoiled to death, The Sixth Sense is still regarded as one of the best horror movies of the past 20 years. Follow-up films Unbreakable and Signs also proved to be successful hits, with the former being a fascinating take on superhero origin stories. Then The Village happened, which proved to be divisive amongst fans, followed by critical and commercial flops Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. Somehow The Last Airbender manages his highest grossing movie, even though I could do a whole post on how much I despise that film but that is for another time. After these string of failures, two of which having massive budgets, one could understand why Shyamalan would want to return to his roots with his latest film The Visit.

This modern take on Hansel and Gretel is shot mainly as a found footage film. It focuses on siblings, Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), as they venture to meet their grandparents. Budding filmmaker Rebecca decides to use this opportune visit to create a documentary of the experience. No more than a day after arriving, the two begin to notice strange things about their grandparents. As time goes on, they begin to realize things are not what they thought they were, with Grandpa’s strange visits to the shed and Grandma crawling on the floor like a crazed animal for no apparent reason.

This film sees Shyamalan going back to basics, with the help mega-horror producer Jason Blum and some out-of-pocket funding. While the result is nowhere near perfect, it is the strongest work Shyamalan has produced in years, due to the performances, the hilarious and emotional script, and a spin on the tiring found footage format.

The performances, for the most part, are fairly good. While at times they felt a bit stilted, both child actors were generally enjoyable in their roles. They were easily relatable and the audience could understand why these kids were so excited to meet their grandparents, especially once they found out why their dad left and why Mom never spoke about the grandparents. The grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie? They are an utter blast to watch. Both actors can go from sweet to hilariously crazy at the drop of a hat, yet know when to rein in either performance. Dunagan is a particular standout with her character making me chuckle one moment and scared witless the next. She crackles on screen and is a joy to watch.

Unlike The Happening, which was unintentionally hilarious, the script for The Visit feels as if it is trying to be more dark comedy than horror. There are parts where the humor is so dark that you don't know if you should laugh or feel immensely uncomfortable. Even when the film is aiming for screams, you cannot help but laugh (I'd highly recommend seeing this movie in a crowded theater). There is the classic "Shyamalan twist" in the film, of course, but it is one of his better twists.

The script is not without fault though. A particular fumbled element is the fact that Tyler knows something is wrong with their grandparents, while Rebecca insists that everything is all right, insisting that they are just old, even if the evidence is right in front of her. Another big "miss" moment? One of the film's subplots involves Tyler wanting to be a rapper, and he drops some of the lamest and cringe-worthy raps since Vanilla Ice burst onto the scene.

Shyamalan retreats to using the found footage format to shoot the film, a style that seems to be all the rage in horror movies these days. However, he manages to use this tired trope and make it seem fresh and different by blending it with his trademark camera style. While also utilizing "shaky-cam" techniques familiar in most horror movies, he manages to make these shots look gorgeous and give the shots more of an artistic look than a horror one. There's a scene where the two kids are talking about their personal issues and the camera slowly pushes in on Rebecca's face (we are supposed to believe that it is Tyler zooming in), and the shot gets tighter and tighter until only we see a quarter of her face. The style of the cinematographer lends itself to Shyamalan’s direction.

While not a home run, The Visit is a return to form for Shyamalan, reminding us that he still has enough juice left to build towards his former glory.

Welcome back, M. Night. Welcome back.



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