Night Shyamalan’s new film The Visit might be his scariest yet. By scary, I mean that the film relies completely on the dubious acting chops of Australian child actors putting on American accents, and has them read the weakest, most self-indulgent script commissioned in 2015. Shyamalan further “ratchets up the tension” by getting fourteen-year-old actor Ed Oxenbould to spontaneously break into freestyle raps without any appropriate trigger warning. I’m not joking. I started to have heart palpitations at the thought of getting through the film’s 96 minute running time, and you will too.
Mysteriously, The Visit is being billed as a return-to-form for Shyamalan. That might be because his recent filmography has included big-budget abominations such as The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. It’s hard to remember that he was once the most exciting new talent in Hollywood. His debut thriller The Sixth Sense is a modern horror masterpiece. Unfortunately, nearly every film he made afterwards followed the same formula as his debut; i.e. creepy shit, vulnerable protagonist, creepy shit, illogical twist that doesn’t make any sense, frustrated audience. The Visit then, is a chance at a fresh start. It’s made on a shoe-string budget, it’s an indie film, it’s a chance for Shyamalan to show he can handle the form and content of a scary film, without big name actors or special effects. Unfortunately, it just sucks.
Premise? Documentary-maker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) have never met their estranged grandparents Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie). Despite reluctance from mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn), the two impetuous kids are granted a week to spend time with the old fogeys on a rural property in a distant town. Once arrived, the grandparents are kooky and affectionate. But as the week wears on, the old crony’s quirks turn bizarre and violent; especially after 9:30pm; when grandma gets naked and skids around the house on all fours. Those of you playing at home are probably already trying to spot the inevitable Shyama-twist that binds this thing together. I won’t give it away – but if you’ve seen Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, you might well see it coming.
The audience is restricted to the point-of-view of either Tyler or Becca throughout the film. They’re the ones holding the cameras. It’s lucky then that both children are adept cinematographers, shooting in a style very reminiscent of a certain Indian-American auteur. Honestly, the found-footage genre is capable of creating some truly unsettling realism, but you have to sacrifice the panoramics and steady cam to get it. Kids couldn’t shoot a feature like this, so The Visit never feels remotely convincing.
But ultimately, there’s bigger problems here than that. I’m going to call them ‘acting’ and ‘screenplay.’ Any film that relies on child actors almost exclusively better have damn good ones. The Visit doesn’t. Oxenbould and DeJonge deadpan their way through stilted dialogue that never matches the alleged tension of the scene. Dunagan and McRobbie – the old folks in the film – are comparably better, but they’re let down by a lazy characterization of ageing and mental illness that could well be a SNL skit. We all know old people are scary and weird, but Shyamalan relies exclusively on this point. What’s lacking is that masterful control of character he brought to The Sixth Sense all those years ago; such that when little Haley Joel Osment proclaimed “I see dead people”, our hearts broke while our palms sweated. There’s nothing of the kind in The Visit. It’s more a strange combination of Shyamalan self-indulgences and clichés; unevenly straddling genres and wholly unsuccessful at nailing any of them.
If that doesn’t turn you off, The Visit’s end credits feature Ed Oxenbould freestyling the non-existent plot straight at the camera. Now that’s scary.