Friday, November 13, 2015

This Honky Grandma Be Trippin'

Year: 2015
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

M. Night Shyamalan. A once proud director whose name has since become a punchline not even Fozzie Bear could screw up. After helming one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, The Sixth Sense, he took a break from filmmaking. Though, that isn’t to say he quit directing. After a string of increasingly mediocre twist pictures, he began one of history’s longest sustained barrages of box office duds, smashing his credibility to smithereens with high profile dreck like The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth.

So here we sit, a good decade between us and his last remotely appealing film. Enter Jason Blum. Given free reign and an appropriately miniscule budget, our M. Night is afforded one last chance to get his groove back: the found footage thriller The Visit. So, did it work? Let’s journey over the river and through the woods to find out.

To grandmother’s Blumhouse we go.

In The Visit, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is making a documentary. A young film buff, she has decided to record herself and her younger brother Tim (Ed Oxenbould) while they spend a week at their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for 15 years, so Becca is hoping that this trip  - which also allows mom to spend some quality time with her new boyfriend – will be an opportunity to both meet her grandparents and attempt to rebuild a long-burned bridge.

Almost immediately, things take a turn for the wacked-out. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are outwardly kind and charming. But after 9:30 PM, Nana takes after her famous cookies and goes a little nuts, rattling ferociously around the house in the nude. Becca’s borderline compulsive instinct to chalk things up to “old people, am I right?” quickly wears thin as the serene winter visit quickly descends into nightmare.

Don’t mind the creaking. It’s just an old house.

If you take only one thing from this review, make it this: In spite of obvious deficiencies, The Visit is Shyamalan’s best work in a decade and change. It also leaves the distinct impression of a writer-director endeavoring to regain his instincts, not always succeeding but slowly earning back his goodwill. The seasoned Shyamalan watcher (I’m sorry, by the way) will notice DNA of his favorite themes lodged within The Visit like pineapples in an upside–down cake. There’s the obligatory twist, of course, though he knows by now that he needs to pull back from the showboating endings that defined and capsized his middling works.

We also get a return to his Signs standby of child characters with ludicrously specific quirks that – of course – come into play in the finale (“I’ve compulsively memorized every song in the Taylor Swift discography! Gee, I sure hope those junior high girls outside stop trying to murder us.”). This trope, she does not work too well. It’s blatantly telegraphed and it makes less than no sense, but just like the wan family drama laced through the whole thing, you can tell he’s trying and it’s hard to begrudge him of that. Plus, after the hot dog speech in The Happening, I’m not exactly fazed by a couple dud payoffs. At least what I’m watching physically resembles a motion picture.

There’s some scattered slick patches of ineptitude spread throughout The Visit: exposition that’s indicated with huge neon lettering, idiotic character decisions at every turn, intentionally inaccurate language used to obfuscate a twist, and a strong sense that the script dearly wished it took place in the 90’s. But these are flaws The Visit comes by naturally and genuinely. It might be far from perfection, but it’s a totally serviceable found footage feature with a delightful mixture of spooky and kooky.

And just a little ooky.

I’m legitimately astonished at how much fun I had watching The Visit. In fact, it might be the perfect coda to the found footage fad, which hit a resurgence with Paranormal Activity and died a lonely death with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, nor could it, but it utilizes its perspective in a satisfying manner, even physically incorporating the camera into the action, a trick I haven’t seen since the only good moment in the abysmal 2008 remake Quarantine.

The slightly misaligned shots offer the merest whiff of realism, allowing the scare gags (which follow Paranormal Activity’s recurring nightly pattern) to creep under your skin a little at a time. The slow boil shocks are generally effective, utilizing offscreen space well and offering a glimpse into a world just slightly to the left of normal. For a while, the “it’s just a creaky old grandma” excuses are even believable. The tension builds and builds, deftly playing with the audience. In one of my favorite scenes, a scare is revealed to be something mundane until a subtle last minute reversal clues you into the fact that something is terribly wrong here. You’ll know it when you see it, and that kind of moment proves that Shyamalan might just be back on track to give us nightmares again.

The most unexpected joy to be found in The Visit is that it’s funny. It’s not Sam Raimi slapstick hilarity, but a kind of down-home quiet humor permeates the film. I suppose this tone should have been expected from the casting of Kathryn Hahn, one of our generation’s most underrated comic actresses, but it melds so perfectly with the darker horror elements that you almost don’t even notice it’s there. It’s just a subtle undertone in the background that flavors the world of the film with another shade of reality. They do occasionally derail into nightmarishly goofy territory that would make Adam Sandler blush (no spoilers, but if you’re familiar with the Pokérap, you’ll get some disconcerting déjà vu), but for the most part, the balance is pitch perfect.

The Visit’s surprisingly quality can largely be attributed to the performers, who sell the hell out of a somewhat silly conceit. Oxenbould somehow inhabits an utterly smackable character and makes him into the film’s best comic asset, DeJonge shows some remarkable nuance, subtly altering her performance to shift between reality and when she’s vamping for the camera, and both the grandparents give remarkably unsettling physical performances that somehow evoke both kindly grandparents and looming birds of prey.

There’s really a lot to like about The Visit. It’s an impure jewel, to be certain, but a jewel just the same. With this enticing blend of found footage frights and childlike comic antics, Shyamalan has achieved the impossible: I’m actually excited for his next film.

TL;DR: The Visit is Shyamalan's best film in a decade.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1139

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