SEPTEMBER 11, 2015
I will defend M. Night Shyamalan as a director to the death. As a screenwriter he... is imperfect, to put it nicely, but even his worst movies (Lady in the Water) display a great visual sense, careful editing, and actors giving solid performances (a bad director can make a good actor look otherwise - see: Phantom Menace). So it's no surprise that, like Barry Levinson with The Bay and Bobcat Goldthwait with Willow Creek, he has managed to rise above the trappings of most found footage/"documentary" horror films, due to actually knowing how to make a film and understand that the POV aesthetic is just another tool at his disposal. The Visit isn't Night's best film or anything, but it's one of the best of its type in ages, and should help cement a minor comeback for the once untouchable filmmaker.
And that was a relief, because I've been seeing the trailer for months and every time, certain moments got a big reaction from the crowd (with such dire releases as of late, it'd be more engaged than they ever got with the feature they were seeing). The grandfather sticking the gun in his mouth ("I was just cleaning it!") and the girl getting into the oven were always the big ones, and thus it seemed Night finally had a hit on his hands - it would have been a bummer if the movie didn't deliver. But with the pretty full crowd I saw it with, those moments and several others played just as expected, with one jump scare even startling me a bit, and another, more icky moment (for those who have seen the movie, the "You have a problem with germs, right?" part) had them all reacting as they should. I was actually just talking to someone the other day about how horror-comedies should be a bigger/more popular sub-genre, because if they're working right the audience will be laughing AND screaming. This one delivers that AND collective audience disgust (in that one isolated moment) as a bonus!
But I wouldn't call it a comedy/horror, as it's listed on IMDb. Night said he actually had a cut of the movie that was straight up comedy, and I'd be very curious to see how that would work. Sure, there are funny moments, and like 90% of these movies the first 10-15 minutes are loaded with "look how wacky these people are with their camera!" stuff, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Blair Witch (Heather goofing off with marshmallows comes to mind), but it's still a horror movie about two kids who are trapped with their increasingly strange grandparents. Their various health issues (discontinence for Pop Pop, sundowning for Nana, and dementia for both) are scary and SAD, not really funny (well, Pop Pop's discontinence is the butt of a few jokes, and yes that pun is intended), and yes, there is a body count (all off-screen, but still). Maybe it's a comedy compared to Night's other movies (The Happening notwithstanding) but the terror is always real - the humor all stems from reactions and intentional tension breakers - that's not a comedy, to me.
And now that I've compared it to Night's other films, I guess we have to talk about "the twist". I will not reveal it explicitly, but will talk around it, so skip the next paragraph if you want to go in more blind.
Ultimately we learn what Nana and Pop Pop are really all about, and I wrestle with the idea of even calling it a twist - it's more of the reveal at the end of the 2nd act that prompts what happens in the 3rd (it's not like Bruce Willis realized he was a ghost with 30 minutes left of Sixth Sense). Like a good twist, it might make you want to watch the movie a 2nd time, but only to double check that it never became impossible to work (as opposed to just spotting the clues you missed), so again it's not really a big "holy shit" moment. It's also not even that hard to figure out; I called it about 20 minutes before we are told, and that's without me even putting together one of the major clues until a few hours after I saw it. But I loved that Night seemed to be making fun of himself a little and setting the audience up for something more extreme than what it is, as Nana tells a very odd story about fish people (or something?) that I would be willing to bet was his way of acknowledging some of his past work while also trying to mislead us. It's an M NIGHT SHYAMALAN movie after all - aliens or monsters or ghosts or whatever the hell have to be involved, right? Even if you're smart enough to know that Nana's story can't be suggesting the actual answer, you're probably going to start thinking more along those lines than you already did when you saw his name in the credits, making the actual answer all the more satisfying. It certainly worked on one younger guy coming out of the film with his girlfriend, who told her that "Usually his twists are so fucking stupid!" after saying how much he enjoyed this one. Plus he doesn't dwell on it; we learn what it is and that's that - there's no one coming in to explain the entire backstory. You can piece it together with the info that's laid out and that's all you need to know, really (if anything, the more you think about it, the more questions you'll need answered to explain how it would have worked, so best to just not do that).
As for the POV element, like I said it works really well. I've read a few tweets suggesting that it's yet another movie that doesn't need to be shot this way, but not only does Night justify it several times (the girl is making a documentary about her estranged family, and also enjoys filming others but can't stand to look at herself), he also utilizes it better than most. So even if some of it IS a bit wonky (the chase under the porch, for example - why wouldn't they drop the camera?) he gets a lot more right than wrong, and I've always said that you just have to meet the audience halfway on these things. NONE of them hold up to total scrutiny, but so many don't even get the basics right that it's just relieving to see one that does (and then some). And even better, he actively refuses to do any of the usual shit until the very end where he kinda has no choice. The girl, being an astute filmmaker and documentarian, refuses to let the brother set a camera up to see what happens when they're not around - i.e. the thing that makes up the bulk of every Paranormal Activity movie. Likewise, and correct me if I forgot one, but I don't think there's a single moment in the movie until the big climax where a camera is dropped in such a particular way that allows it to see all of the subsequent action perfectly, another hallmark/annoyance of these movies.
I suspect it'll play even better to kids. The boy of the sibling pair is kind of annoying; the actor is good (and I appreciated that the two of them got along for the most part - it's not some bullshit where they hate each other but come together over their shared terror), but for whatever reason his main character trait is that he fancies himself a freestyle rapper. He's proud of his 347 Youtube hits for one of his videos, compares himself to Tyler, The Creator (!), and raps at least three times in the movie, including one over the end credits. He also has a bizarre thing where instead of saying "Ho" he will say female singers? So when he's freaking out he'll yell "Shania Twain!" or something? I didn't get it, and it was hardly my favorite part of the movie - but I'm sure 12 year old boys will find it funny enough, and the movie is definitely harmless enough with its PG-13 elements (Nana's old lady butt and one F bomb) that you can be comfortable showing it to your budding horror fan children. Devin compared it to Goosebumps, and that's apt - maybe a bit harsher, but definitely along those lines of campfire story horror, preying on basic fears (being away from home, strangers, etc). And unlike adults, they won't have that knee-jerk reaction to M Night Shyamalan's name, with some unfounded bias clouding the experience.
Now, if this is a hit, can we get that 2nd Night Chronicles movie? Been waiting five goddamn years!
What say you?