It’s only fair to start with a confession; I enjoy “Signs” more than I should. Even knowing there are huge flaws, I still will watch it every Sunday afternoon it plays on TBS. We all have a few of these movies that are our Kryptonite. “Sleepless in Seattle” is up there too. Get your mother back, Jonah! She’s waiting at the top of the Empire State Building! “The Visit” isn’t a particularly well done film, but it is better than almost all of M. Night Shyamalan’s films since “The Sixth Sense.” There are echoes of “Signs” throughout that lead one to believe that this was written with a certain self-awareness of the absurdity of the script, characters, and director. This makes the final product more of a comedy than a horror film, despite the marketing campaign. After all of Shyamalan’s flops, a tongue-in-cheek self-destruction of his own ego may be what he needs to get back on track.
The terrifying story of a brother and sister who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a weeklong trip. Once the children discover that the elderly couple is involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home are growing smaller every day. (Synopsis by Universal Pictures)
The choice to use a “found footage” documentary style isn’t unusual for a modern horror film. But Shyamalan uses the intimacy of the lens and the mirror of watching a director film to run a commentary on himself. By no means is this a subtle choice, either. One of the many metaphors? Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is directing a film about her mother’s relationship with her grandparents during the trip, but literally refuses to look at herself in the mirror and is visibly uncomfortable in front of the lens. In an almost surprisingly beautiful shot, this dichotomy is directly discussed between Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and his sister while slowly panning past Becca’s insecure facial reactions. It may only be coincidence, but this is the one of the few times that Shyamalan doesn’t have a cameo in his own film.
A frequent complaint about Shyamalan’s writing is that he focuses more on the film’s theme than on making a coherent film. “The Visit” is no exception. Throughout the film there are several subplots present between the different characters that all condense down to the major theme of valuing one’s family. At times this adds a degree of depth that is unexpected in what should amount to a simple horror flick. Yet the moments of detailed examination of the theme push away the horror elements that should balance out the humor. What is left is a film that is funnier than it is scary. Whether this is introspection into the genre, such as “Cabin in the Woods,” or a reflection of Shyamalan’s past directorial flaws is open for debate.
There is a strong argument to be made that Shyamalan is deliberately asking the audience to laugh with him at his directorial shark-jumping. Too many pieces of “The Visit” are parallels to “Signs” the film that initially caused audiences to question whether Shyamalan needed to rein in his ego. Here again is the theme of family bonding at a remote farm location. The characters, especially the children, are written in a way that no one would ever speak or behave in real life. In the end, a character has to overcome a previous shortcoming to “save the day.” All of it seems too familiar to simply be coincidence.
Regardless, this ends up being a surprisingly enjoyable film that is smarter than the trailer would make you believe. The core message is delivered earnestly, even if the execution is slightly clunky. The horror elements are certainly familiar, but provide just enough balance to keep the audience engaged. What really works is the humor, parodying the seriousness of the horror tropes while alluding to a wink-of-the-eye examination of Shyamalan’s catalog. In other words, it ends up being a fun, enjoyable film.
THREE out of four stars.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Runtime 1 hr. 34 min.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language.