Friday, October 30, 2015


This Visit is one of the more peculiar films of 2015. While I'm not a fan of it, the film has gained quite a bit of critical praise. Actually, it seems like I'm in the minority with my views on Shayamalan's recent found footage horror tale.
PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor Ian Loffill is no stranger to misunderstood horror movies so it only makes sense that he shares his thoughts on this.


I only recently became properly acquainted with the work of writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan but for years his filmography has had a major influence on my approach to writing about films. The Sixth Sense was one of the “must see” films of 1999 and I would have watched it during its initial release but a lot of the early hype surrounding the film was down to the twist ending that, apparently, few people saw coming. Unfortunately a poorly written review of the film I stumbled across at the time gave the ending away (without warning) in the first paragraph and so it seemed like the one major reason people were saying you should watch the film (“did you see the twist coming?”) was no longer valid. I still feel pretty strongly about the whole subject of spoilers. I’m the kind of person who never sees “the twist” coming. My mind just doesn’t work that way when absorbing a story so a film has to be extremely predictable for me to be able to see where it’s all going. To make matters worse, I inadvertently found out about the endings of two of his subsequent films (Signs and The Village) in everyday conversations with friends and co-workers who assumed I’d already seen them. Each of his subsequent efforts got progressively worse notices and it felt like I was destined to never be able to see the work of one of the most talked about names in modern American cinema without someone ruining the element of surprise. It’s for this reason (and other spoiler ridden reviews I’ve come across over the years) that, wherever possible, I try not to allude to plot details too much in my write-ups.

At the urging of a Shyamalan enthusiast/apologist I recently went to the see The Visit, knowing almost nothing about it, and also set about catching up on all of his prior work that I’d missed in the last 15 years or so. He’s had the sort of career arc that I’d imagine most filmmakers hope to avoid. In less than a decade he went from being an Oscar nominated critical darling with The Sixth Sense to being seen as a genre hack and laughing stock with The Happening in 2008. At a certain point (probably not long after 2004’s misleadingly promoted The Village) mainstream audiences began to resent Shyamalan for getting caught up in the hype of his increasingly ambitious and farfetched releases, none of which seemed to achieve the same payoff as The Sixth Sense or Signs. While not quite reaching Uwe Boll levels of hate, he remains an auteur in the most unfashionable sense of the term and it’s got to a stage where bad reviews for his work are almost redundant. He’s been on the ropes for a while now but it can sometimes take an awful lot to finish off the career of a well established director.

It’s possible Shyamalan saw a glimmer of hope with 2010’s relatively well received Horror/Mystery flick Devil – which he produced and got a story credit for, although his overall involvement in the film may have been somewhat exaggerated in its advertising. For Shyamalan the director The Visit could be seen as a humbling retreat to the genre that made his name and one last throw of the dice for a man who was once touted as a modern day Hitchcock. For Shyamalan the producer and bankable entity The Visit was a smart move. Working with Blumhouse productions, who specialise in low budget, gimmicky Horror films like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister, the gamble seems to have paid off. If marketed well and released at the right time of year films of this ilk are already hugely profitable before anyone notices whether or not they are any good. The box office figures for The Visit (made for roughly $5 million, to date it has grossed over $80 million) seem to have bought him a reprieve after a string of films that either flopped or underperformed dating back to Lady in the Water in 2006. This may be a means of pressing the reset button on his career, signalling a somewhat different approach and hoping to start all over again with a clean slate.

His declining fortunes with mainstream audiences can possibly be attributed to his inability to resolve dramatic and narrative issues in a satisfactory manner. His problems as a storyteller are how he often gets tangled up in his own plot devices and exposition. After the baffling pseudo-scientific explanations and mythological aspects in his work over the last 10 years the relatively simple and clear outline for The Visit was a way of making a more straightforward and accessible offering to audiences. To give a very basic summary of the plot: 2 children visit their grandparents at an isolated farmhouse for the first time and make a documentary about the experience over the course of a week while their mother holidays with her partner. Things get increasingly weird. Well, let’s just say I found it easier to follow than Lady in the Water or The Last Airbender.

If I had any scepticism going in to the film it’s because I generally dislike the found footage format. Even in films of that ilk that I have enjoyed, like Cloverfield, the whole framework seems unnecessary and forced. Few filmmakers have managed to employ it in a way that doesn’t’ feel horribly contrived. A lot of scenes require an explanation as to why the camera is switched on in the first place, especially at points where the characters are in such grave danger. More than anything else it has a distracting effect that makes the audience even more aware of the story’s inherent triteness and implausible details. If there are advantages to be found in this filmmaking style in The Visit it’s that it gives the rather pedestrian story a playful quality and eccentricity that it would have lacked if it had been done in a more conventional form.

Having read various responses to the film, there’s been a good deal of bemusement and debate over certain aspects of the film – whether the depictions of mental illness and the experiences of the elderly were in poor taste for instance. Did we really need so many scenes of Tyler demonstrating his rapping skills? Typically, some have asked if the film’s late “revelation” was even meant to be a surprise. Perhaps aware of the unintended laughs that some of his more recent work has provoked, Shyamalan wanted to keep audiences off balance on this one. The awkward mixture of solemn and silly is perhaps the best way to describe the mood of The Visit. In this context the one performance that feels perfectly judged is that of Deanna Dunagan as Nana, who creates the right amount of unease, malice, vulnerability and surface gentleness in her character while being fully attuned to the film’s black humour and cynicism. I feel like I got a reasonably satisfactory explanation for the film’s tone from Shyamalan himself when he stated in an interview that he actually shot 2 versions of the film. One was a serious, moody Horror film and the other was a broadly comic offering. The resulting film was apparently a mixture of the two versions that was put together in the editing room.

In its own peculiar way The Visit illustrates better than any other film I know the dilemmas facing 21st century Horror films. Now there is such a lucrative market in generating empty jump scares in formulaic offerings why bother trying something original or more substantial? Do you play it straight or tongue in cheek? This seems to try both ways at different points. How do you turn timeworn storylines and imagery in to something that is fresh and appeals to contemporary sensibilities? Modern technology and postmodern attitudes present enormous challenges to a genre with gothic roots and folklore origins. The Visit takes on certain knowingness in its allusions to fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. It makes time to detail the protagonists’ ability to phone for help or go online as well as letting us know how they are employing filmmaking techniques in Rebecca’s documentary. The film hasn’t done much to challenge my reservations about contemporary Horror films, many of which seems to aim low and succeed on their own very limited terms, but its confounding nature just about held my interest.

Within a mainstream context it’s refreshing to see a big release that was nothing like what I expected. There’s something reassuring in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who was perplexed by The Visit. Any originality it possesses comes largely as a result of the sometimes uncomfortable humour, which doesn’t quite enter spoof territory, and what I considered to be ill-judged moments. The Visit is one of the strangest and most unfathomable genre exercises I’ve encountered in a long time but, just to be clear on the matter, I won’t be making a case for it as a “misunderstood masterpiece” any time soon.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...