Well, it had to happen sometime. Movies directed by M. Night Shyamalan had to stop getting steadily worse at some point. I, frankly, thought his number was up after The Last Airbender, but he dug deep to come up with After Earth.
The movie that has finally turned the awful tide is The Visit. Now, that’s not to say it’s good, but Shyamalan displays at least some understanding that big, special-effects material is not what he’s best at. He dials it way back from overwrought science fiction to an intimate, almost claustrophobic campfire tale. It’s still overwrought, though.
I’m serious when I call it a campfire tale. The underlying story is less one of Shyamalan’s trademark twists than the sort of yarn that kids spin to creep each other out. It’s the sort of thing that turns into an urban legend, and eventually gets sorted and catalogued on Snopes.
The problem with building movies out of these kinds of stories is that they’re designed to be bite-sized. There’s only one real hook; once it’s delivered the story is over. You can’t make the audience wait forever to set it up, either; maybe with some effort you can pad one out to about ten minutes or so. Even the movie actually called Urban Legend used half a dozen of these stories and traded on the late ’90s meta-horror trend, lampshading their formulaic structure.
And so, in order to puff this thing out to feature length, Shyamalan bolts on loads of familial sturm und drang; he doesn’t seem to have learned that human emotions are also not what he’s best at. Becca and Tyler Jamison (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) have never met their mother’s parents, since she (Kathryn Hahn) ran away with one of her high school substitute teachers and hasn’t spoken to them in fifteen years. But they get back into contact and ask for a visit from their grandchildren.
The kids practically insist on going. Their father ran off with an even younger woman, leaving their mother depressed, and their trip will give her a chance for a vacation with her new guy. Becca also decides to film the trip — oh yeah, it’s another shaky, blurry, hand-held found-footage piece — in an attempt to give her mother closure over the rift with her parents. She speaks in pretentious, half-understood filmmaking and storytelling terms as if putting them in the mouth of a teenaged girl rather than Shyamalan’s own will make them better. The worst of the lot is her constant, unexplained reference to her goal as “the elixir” for her mother. There’s no in-story reason she has for framing the trip as a monomythic ordeal; Shyamalan simply cannot help letting his knowledge as a writer bleed across into her knowledge as a character.
Anyway, Becca and Tyler get to their grandparents’ farm in rural Pennsylvania. Nana and Pop-Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) welcome them warmly, but soon begin to act strangely. Nana is the worse of the two, skittering around the house at night; Pop-Pop advises the kids to stay in their room after 9:30, blaming “sundowning”, for which Shyamalan includes a completely wrong explanation the kids supposedly dig up on the internet.
That’s only the beginning of the shabby armchair psychology. The kids’ father leaving has left Tyler with a stereotyped version of obssessive-compulsive disorder — “a way to assert his need for control” — and guilt over freezing in a Pop Warner football game five years earlier. Becca evidently can’t look at herself in a mirror — she has “no self-worth”, but we get no indication why that would follow from her father leaving — but she conveniently has no problems looking at herself in footage. Every time Shyamalan tries to dig into these aspects of their characters it’s clumsy and awkward.
But clumsy and awkward at least builds more tension than the ridiculous antics of the grandparents. It looks like it’s meant to be scary, but more than a few lines were drowned out by the audience’s laughter.
To give credit where it’s due, the underlying story is an interesting new variation on this kind of urban legend. And, while it’s not particularly surprising, Shyamalan does play it out rather neatly. There’s a nice short in here somewhere, but as a feature there’s just too much filler bogging it down to ever be effective.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.