The only way I can think to summarize my thoroughly conflicted feelings about The Visit is to recreate The Simpsons‘ take on the shopkeeper scene in Gremlins. The Visit had a surprisingly amusing trailer, but a lot of the best gags were included in the ad. Ooh, that’s bad. But the last half hour is a riot! That’s good. The hour leading up to it is a snooze. That’s bad. But the film ends in a plot-summarizing rap song, one of my all-time favorite movie tropes. That’s good! It’s also a found footage horror movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan . . . That’s bad. Can I go now?
Besides the automatic groans induced its by-the-numbers found footage format, part of what makes The Visit so frustrating is its annoyingly precocious leads. A fifteen year old documentarian & her younger white rapper brother eat up almost the entirety of the film’s runtime, testing my patience in every scene. The pint-sized white rapper is obviously the easier target to pick on here, especially when he’s displaying his cringe-worthy craft for the camera. He boasts to his clueless grandmother, “Do you know who Tyler the Creator is? People say I’ve got that kind of sound,” (Fuck this kid.) but the truth is that he’s a decade-late Aaron Carter at best. Thankfully, his sister calls him out on his bullshit fairly often, calling him “ethnically confused” & describing his art as “songs of misogyny” (he’s particularly fond of punctuating songs with the words “bitch” & “ho”), but the truth is she’s not much better. More arrogant poser than accomplished auteur, she’s prone to saying things like “I hate sappy movies. I find them torturous,” that remind me way too much of the asshole, know-it-all personality I’m glad (or I hope) that I left behind in my teens. It’s a fairly insufferable combo.
The good news is that they’re punished for their shortcomings . . . eventually. Hurting from an early separation from their father, the kids suffer from some crippling neuroses: the documentarian has a disgust with her own self-image and the lil’ rapper struggles both with germophobia & a tendency to freeze under pressure. In an attempt to heal old wounds in their mother’s life & to fill the familial void left by their absent father, the kids decide to document a week-long visit with their estranged grandparents. Subverting the old hat horror trope that kids are usually the creepy ones (something exploited as recently as the Sinister franchise), the grandparents’ “sundowning” & dementia make them out to be a horrific threat that gets increasingly dangerous as the week drags on. The grandparents honestly don’t say too much for the first two-thirds of the film, which is a damn shame, because they’re infinitely more interesting than their would-be victims. What starts out as warning signs like catching them naked, scratching door jams like a cat sharpening its claws & hoarding used diapers in a locked toolshed eventually escalates to A Big Showdown worthy of an 80’s slasher flick. In the movie’s last minute chaos, the kids’ debilitating nueroses are literally thrown in their faces as they’re confronted with mirrors & germ-infested feces in way that finally, finally delivers on some of the potential of a immensely promising premise.
In a lot of ways it’s the typical Shyamalan plot structure that makes the full experience of The Visit so conflicting. The tyranny of The Last Minute Twist drags the film down so hard, evoking far more boredom than tension as you wait for the hammer to finally fall. There’s a little fun to be had before the twist, like when the grandmother chases the kids through a crawl space like a wild animal only to cheerily announce “I’m making chicken pot pie!” when she catches them. Speaking of food, her constant offerings of cookies, bread pudding, cheddar biscuits, and whatever else give the film a distinct Hansel & Gretel vibe, one intentionally landed by her insistence that one of the kids climb into the oven “to clean it”. There’s also some laughable horror movie tropes, like the fact that they’re trapped in an isolated, one cop town with no Wi-Fi or cellphone reception. By the time the film finally devolves into geriatric mayhem, which includes divine moments like the lines “I have the deep darkies. You have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in a cave,” & “I see the veiny, deformed face of the world,” as well as the world’s most tense game of Yahtzee (“We picked teams! Young vs. old.”), I find myself wondering why it couldn’t have been that fun the entire time. Shyamalan’s dedication to springing a surprise on his audience in the final act is needlessly frustrating. Why not have The Twist arrive earlier in the sparsely populated runtime to make room for more senior citizen terror? Why not give the people what they want early & often?
I left my visit with The Visit firmly on the fence with how I felt about it. Although I wished more of the film was like the bonkers final half hour, that type of non-stop old folgey mayhem was already delivered decades ago in the straight-to-VHS gore fest Rabid Grannies. Although the film suffers under the Tyranny of the Twist, Shyamalan knowingly alludes to how frustrating that plot structure can be & teases possible out-there twists like underwater aliens & “the white thing with the yellow eyes” in a admirably prankish attempt to screw with audience expectations. Although I found the main characters to be unbearably dull & precocious (far beyond what I believe was intended), I also found their character arcs to be sufficiently satisfying by the film’s conclusion. It wasn’t until I was standing outside the theater, overhearing a stranger complain, “We’ll that’s two hours I’ll never get back” that my opinion instantly became slightly more positive than my initial indecision. Out of pure spite & pettiness for that offhand comment, I thought to myself “You know what? I’ve seen way worse. It was alright.” You could probably attribute half a star of my rating to that little bit of vindictive eavesdropping. Otherwise, I’d still be exactly divided on how I felt.