Shyamalan creeps into micro-budget horror with ‘The Visit’

11 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

“The Visit” movie review: M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller.

A family get-together starts out strange and quickly enters nightmare territory in “The Visit,” a horror-thriller that turns soiled adult diapers into a motif. Mom’s a little worried about sending the kids off alone – she’s been estranged from her parents since she left home – but she thinks the teens will enjoy it.

You haven’t had a true hit for 13 years and audiences rightfully started reprimanding you for the precipitous drop in the caliber of your work since Signs. Once the children discover that the elderly couple is involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home growing smaller every day. The movie, filmed from the perspective of a brother and sister who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a weeklong trip, is a sticky mess.

Aligned with schlockmeister Jason Blum, Shyamalan now gives his fans “The Visit,” one of those dreary “found footage” efforts (“found footage” meaning Grade Z), concerning children in peril. I could have gotten this money from anywhere.’ “But it was a conscious decision to be as idiosyncratic as I can be and not think in terms of what will be commercial or what will satisfy audiences. Each one managed to pull in more than $100 million at the box office, but the former kicked off your sharp decline in quality and the latter marked your critical low point, generating only a 6 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Meant to have a Blair Witch Project documentary style feel to it, The Visit is awkwardly scripted and filled with filmmaker jargon that is supposed to impress but is highly annoying. Loretta Jameson (Kathryn Hahn), whose husband left her and their children, hasn’t spoken to her parents, who live on a farm in rural Pennsylvania and are retired mental health counselors, for 15 years.

Following his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense, his underrated followup, Unbreakable, and the intriguing but not entirely successful Signs, Shyamalan’s career has been in a seemingly bottomless free fall. Even though Ed Oxenbould (Tyler) and Olivia DeJonge (Becca) both impressed in their roles they fell victim to a story that’s just too polished to be perceived as a school documentary project. What more perfect arrangement could she make than to send her precocious children — tween Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger son, would-be hip-hop artist Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) aka DJ Diamond Stylus — to stay with their grandparents while Loretta and her current beau go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (hairy chest contest, anyone?). In the wake of bloated recent outings “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender,” that hope takes on a particular fervency with this modestly scaled return to straight-up genre fare.

Of course Shyamalan gets up to his old tricks and throws in an unexpected twist near the end – but by that time all interest in the Hansel and Gretel type plot is long forgotten. That anticipation will drive theatrical business for the feature, as will the lure of sheer horror fun, at least until word-of-mouth stems the box-office tide. Do we really still need deep dark wells, crab-walking old scary ladies, creepy basements and mental hospital references to scare the crap out of people? Your name was at the top of the movie poster and you earned strong critical praise in back-to-back-to-back original features (the rarest of studio-sanctioned Hollywood birds), and those movies brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. After embarking from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, Tyler and Becca arrive in the country, where Nana (a very game Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, doing a great Uncle Fester impression, I think) greet them like rock stars.

At the old farmhouse, where Pop Pop keeps ducking into a mysterious shed (ruh-roh) and the trees are often enveloped in mist (redrum), Becca and Tyler are told to stay out of the basement and remain in their room after 9:30 p.m. From that point on, the energy, warmth and nuance of her performance is reduced to intermittent Skype sessions — a crucial element to the story, but nonetheless a letdown for the viewer.

And although many of his movies made money – that’s how he could keep making them – who wants to see “The Village” again? (Hey, even Mark Wahlberg thought “The Happening” was a mistake, and Mark Wahlberg made “Ted 2.”) Guessing, perhaps, that too much money and hype and Hollywood were the problems, Shyamalan decided to get basic – an under-the-radar shoot, one setting (except for a prologue and epilogue), no real special effects and only five actors (the biggest name of which is Kathryn Hahn, who appears briefly as the children’s mother.) And all of it works. Writer-director Shyamalan, who was catapulted to fame by his genuinely creepy and gripping 1999 film “The Sixth Sense,” has fallen on hard times lately with such works as “The Happening” and “After Earth.” “The Visit” isn’t a comeback, although DeJonge and especially Oxenbould, who are both Aussies, are quite good. And as the oddball elders, veteran character actors Deanna Dunagan – who is absolutely fearless – and Peter McRobbie keep the terror at a low, uncomfortable simmer. For a filmmaker so drawn to the fantastic (ghosts, aliens, floating arboreal toxins), Shyamalan has always been remarkably self-serious, with the result that the laughs in his films—of which there have been plenty—have almost always been unintended. (Remember “The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used”?

But there’s more to it than generosity; the camera-wielding siblings, budding auteur Becca in particular, sense an opportunity to make a documentary that uncovers the generational rift between their grandparents and their mother, who left the farm as a teenager, under circumstances she refuses to discuss. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti captures the sense of a nonstop work in progress, seen through the lenses of the kids’ video cameras and laptop, with reality-style interviews, off-center framing and POV night footage … la “Blair Witch.” Shyamalan uses the various devices to tiring effect and without conjuring the requisite deep chills.

Some say it’s “a scary fun-house ride that expertly blends jittery tension and laugh-out-loud humor,” while others call it “frightfully fun, with Shyamalan relentlessly toying with us and cramming in horror genre references.” And The Village Voice is really over the moon, declaring the movie “the best studio horror flick in recent years, combining the but-what’s-in-those-shadows? immersion of The Conjuring … with the crack scripting and meta-cinematic surprises of Shyamalan’s best early films.” During a chat at Comic-Con International in July, you noted that despite the tone presented in early trailers, The Visit was “a very dark comedy mixed with horror” as opposed to a flat-out scary movie. “For me, it’s always a mash of genres, and it’s in the mashup that makes it interesting,” you said. “They’re all dramas masquerading as genre movies for me.” It seemed suspicious, but there I was at a screening laughing out loud (at intentionally funny jokes) and shrieking (with fear) in equal measure. This is no ordinary trip, however: The two kids have never met said grandparents, as their mother (Kathryn Hahn) ended all contact at age 19, when she ran off with a substitute English teacher who would later become the kids’ father and then leave her for a younger woman.

I honestly think it’s the best time I’ve ever had at one of your movies (I’ve got a horror bias, after all) and you did it all by going back to the basics. Within what’s essentially a single setting, Shyamalan and Alberti keep things visually diverse but cohesive, while Naaman Marshall’s clean farmhouse interiors avoid the common trap of overdesign. You were the king of the big-screen Twist! and unquestionably one of the most daring dreamers in Hollywood, only shooting stories that you’d cooked up in your own head and wrote and directed yourself—the exceptions being Airbender and After Earth. (You directed and wrote screenplays for those movies but did not conceive of the stories.) And yes, you had a formula: Philadelphia man endures a tragedy (likely a family member in a devastating accident) and must rise above a very strange set of circumstances to protect the ones he loves. Themes of paternal devotion, heavy-handed commentary on the importance of family, and a moral compass in the form of a hyper-intuitive, pure-spirited child are also typically in play. (No, seriously.

And we’re pretty sure the only reason it stopped is because you went off-world for his last two movies, which is where things got really hairy.) And working with a formula isn’t a bad thing! The answers to these and other questions alternate between the theoretically frightening and the theoretically humorous, and theory meets practice often enough to keep the film moving along. (For instance, it’s a nice touch—equal parts creepy and comical—when Nana asks Becca to crawl completely inside the oven in order to clean it.) But it becomes a bit tiresome—and arguably, insulting—when almost every non-nefarious explanation for the grandparents’ odd behavior is some variation on the idea that “old people go crazy.” Shyamalan doesn’t have much aptitude for the found-footage gimmick, and his script gets weaker as it goes along. Wes Anderson keeps making movies about paper cutouts come to life and Noah Baumbach tells stories exclusively about malaise-stricken adults who act like children, and people can’t get enough of them! It’s losing faith in your cinematic voice and trying to communicate with someone else’s, or even worse, clinging to your darlings so tightly that you think your Message is more important than making good movies.

You wrote about generally ordinary people forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, but the focus was always on how the protagonist related to their loved ones after the unspeakable occurred, with a precocious child thrown in to guide the hero along. The Village was about a guy in a village, but then you semi-killed that guy and made it about the world and some monsters and an intermittently blind girl. The real villain, though, was that terrible script, which you used to force Mark Wahlberg to run around like a moron screaming “Give me a second!” while his dumbstruck face filled the frame.

For your next move, not only did you leave Pennsylvania, you left Earth entirely, and ditched any semblance of the close-quarters family portraits that made your name. The Happening may be the only movie I regret, but Airbender was only watchable because it was hard to tear my eyes away from the catastrophe unfolding on the screen. The bigger your scope got—a village, then all of America, then all of the cosmos—the more fully your movies got crushed under the weight of all those story layers you like to pile on, and when that happened, your signature twist couldn’t live up to the grand aspirations of the movies around them.

But that persnickety approach only works if you have the focus to execute your vision, and every time you take your stories beyond the front door you loose hold on your narrative. Bloating your stories with more characters and grand allegories and sprawling environments mean you lose your grip on the big picture as you try to manage every little thing.

People who like sounding smart would call it a “bottle movie.” You made the primary conflict about a single mother coming to terms with the broken relationship she has with her parents, and made the incredibly wise decision to upgrade the precocious children from supporting players to leading roles. You took your genre-mashing sensibilities and made a really funny, really freaky little movie with the themes and skewed humor and charm of your early projects, and for the first time in years the twist was totally worth it! It was reported at the beginning of last year that you would soon reunite with Bruce Willis for project called Labor of Love about, naturally, “a Philadelphia book store owner who loses the love of his life in a tragic accident.” The project has since been back-burnered, but you claim your follow-up to The Visit will maintain an intimate focus—and will be set in Philadelphia. We are in short supply of major movie directors willing to tell original stories during this era of sequels and superheroes, and it’s nice to know that we can still count on you.

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