Who is M. Night Shyamalan? To most, he is the talented director of “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs”, who has since imploded into one of the most laughable directors of the 21st century, with an ever expanding catalogue of crimes against cinema from “The Village” to “After Earth.”
Personally, I never thought Shyamalan had much talent to begin with. His best film, “The Sixth Sense”, like all of his films, may be well-executed, but it is a one-note movie, relying on superficial suspense, a cheap twist and ham-fisted emotional groveling that assaults our sensibilities.
Regardless of any disagreement over his talent, I think everyone can agree that the release of an M. Night Shyamalan film has become one of the most dreaded prospects in modern cinema. The only thing that might match a Shyamalan project in potential to cause desolation is the release of a mockumentary: a genre so overdone and meticulously meta that soon we will need documentaries to mock the mockumentaries.
So, what do we get from M. Night Shyamalan in 2015? “The Visit”, a horror mockumentary.
The story follows young documentarian Becca (Olivia DeJonge), an irritatingly cine-literate 15-year-old, and her incredibly annoying, freestyle rapping brother (Ed Oxenbould), as they travel to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents, whom they have never met before.
Quickly they realize that things are not quite right.
Their grandparents are paranoid, violent and running around at night in various stages of undress. There is nothing new here or in the twist ending, but the one nice thing I can say about “The Visit” is that it is actually occasionally scary.
The camera, rather than constantly being pointlessly shaken actually feels motivated in each placement, and the slow escalation of weirdness makes each moment tense.
Shyamalan successfully plays with our expectations to the point where we are never sure if an action will be mundane or if it will be horrifying. The build up to the finale is particularly nail-biting, as the final twist is revealed slowly and nerve-rackingly. The camera never gives us all the information we need at once, continuously frightening and disorienting us.
However, most of the tension “The Visit” builds is destroyed bewildering and unfunny attempts to lighten the mood, including: bit characters who say they used to be actors and give monologues into the camera and horrific rapping from Oxenbould. It is as if no one told Shyamalan that the horror and comedy in a horror-comedy are supposed to go together, rather than just exist within the same film.
I think he was going for something Lynchian: conspiratorial and tense with fits of surreal dark comedy.
However, Lynch layers his films in complex webs of surrealism and paranoia, and the humor in his films comes directly from that, but “The Visit” lacks any depth or texture. There is only one level, the surface.
A Lynch film asks a million questions and answers one or two of them, but “The Visit” asks one question: what’s wrong with Grandma and Grandpa? It answers the question, and we are left with nothing.
The film’s greatest failure is Shyamalan’s final push for emotion. Every tearful moment plays more as pleading for the audience’s emotional involvement than as genuine human expression. The whole experience is demeaned by the disgraceful and tacky way each character examines their shallow psychological underpinnings. None of it is any more meaningful than sap dripping down a pine tree, but it is just as messy.
Shyamalan is incapable of challenging the viewer with the grotesque or frightening without comforting them with themes that belong on inspirational posters, not in movies. Horror films are meant to cause discomfort by picking at our anxieties and questioning our fundamental assumptions about our lives and societies. The best films are ambiguous and depraved films that provoke uptight moralists into reactionary frenzies.
I have no patience for horror films that are easy or even worse, saccharine.
Frankly, Shyamalan’s too slight in the stones to make a depraved film, and he certainly does not have intellect to make a thoughtful one. I have already brought up David Lynch, and the difference between the two is very simple: Lynch has dark, provocative ideas, and Shyamalan has plot twists and slogans.