Despite what Steven Spielberg has been saying in the press for years there will always be a few core genres that will be consistent forever. Comedy, Action, Drama – including fully fledged Romance movies and the omnipresent romantic comedy – and more recently Horrors and Thrillers will continually be produced and distributed. Inside these massive categories are smaller sub-genres, like westerns, monster movies and superhero films, that rise to immense popularity and then inevitably decline. Consider these sub-genres chapters of a bigger novel.
For horrors and thrillers there’s the enduring slasher or psychological profile, unworldly possession by the devil or a serial killer, the outright torture porn of Saw 4-7/Hostel era and currently the found footage phenomenon. It’s not a new idea – appearing as early as the eighties, gaining wide attention from 1998’s The Blair Witch Project – but it never truly opened the chapter until 2008’s Paranormal Activity. Since then we’ve had four sequels and a spinoff, four REC movies, the not-awesome Cloverfield and the very awesome Chronicle, Quarantine, a V/H/S trilogy and the stationary Unfriended. And those are the ones in English.
The buzz is well and truly exhausted for found footage, so The Visit doesn’t ever linger on that. It’s inventive by splicing two cameraman’s found footage into one movie to make a more engaging experience and cover parallel plots. The two child leads play like two detectives working the same case, reuniting to compare notes on the day’s activity. Yes, it’s a found footage film, but there are a lot of other things going for it.
The Visit follows two children that meet their grandparents for the first time while their mother is on holiday. It borrows a couple of neat tricks from the better horror films of yesterday – set in a remote location for a defined time period of seven days, limited technology – and plays on a lot of elderly stereotypes to keep the audience guessing. The grandparents are deliberately placed as the villains from the onset and it is up to the children to discover if their suspicions are correct.
It differentiates itself immediately from other horrors thanks to the level of character development in the script. Each character is defined individually early on and layered more and more as the film goes on. The Visit is certainly not a slasher. The spooks come from lingering glances or near-breakdown moments rather than cheap jumps at the camera. The times The Visit performs strongest is when it is furthest away from Paranormal Activity.
There’s also this comedy angle that continues to pull The Visit out of the genre, as if the writer/director is determined not to be a cliché. At times it works extremely effectively. It lightens the mood, reminds the audience of the innocence of the protagonists and distracts the audience with one hand while spooky horror stuff is happening with the other hand. Conversely, there is no quicker way to kill a thriller atmosphere than toilet humour and farcical rapping from children.
The cast is a patchwork bunch. Australians Olivia DeLonge and Ed Oxenbould star as the children that may or may not be in peril to surprising effect and automatically made the experience more intimate and endearing. It’s DeLonge’s second film after a run on ABC drama Hiding while Oxenbould is Australia’s next big thing after appearing in Paper Planes, Puberty Blues and Disney’s Alexander and the Very Bad, Terrible, No Good Day with Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. No flies on them.
The grandfather, Law and Order’s Peter McRobbie, toed the line between creepy and senile very well. The grandmother, Tony award winner Deanna Dunagan, not so much. Whether by fault of the script, the director or the actress, Dunagan is the most overt in the minimal mystery and its jars.
The final cast member – and the tipping point to whether to recommend the film or not – is Kathryn Hahn. She’s the supporting character in everything ever, including Anchorman, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, We’re the Millers and Parks and Recreation, as well as drama roles in Tomorrowland, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Crossing Jordan. In The Visit she’s a semi-jaded Walmart employee that lucked a weekend on a cruise and conflictingly sends her children out to meet her estranged parents. Her character’s scenes over Skype are crucial to the film and Hahn delivers them excellently, raising the overall quality of the film.
It’s also a return to form for writer and director M Night Shyamalan. His highs include The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village while his lows include The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. There is no middle ground. For Night it’s either a classic or a flop.
The Visit is the middle ground. It’s a painstakingly slow burn that plays as a hybrid between horror, mystery and comedy. The cast, especially Hahn, excel and the signature Shyamalan twist is genuinely shocking. The script is never stale and the direction never bores, always edging a little closer to the finale with enough activity to pique the audience’s interest.
All in all it’s just cool to see Shyamalan back in his groove. Let’s see if it continues.