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Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: THE VISIT Falls into Shyamalan's Old Traps

It's not always a bad thing when a director repeats him or herself; Woody Allen has made a career out of making 2-3 extremely similar movies a year. When the thing that's repeated, however, is in itself the element of surprise, the shock is largely diluted. M. Night Shyamalan entered that realm long ago, quickly losing the faith of the fan base born out of the widely praised The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as movie after movie fell into wait-for-the-twist land. In the last few years, while he escaped this problem, The Last Airbender and After Earth received even more venomous criticism. With The Visit hitting theaters this Friday and looking more like a return to his twisty horror beginnings, many moviegoers will be asking the same question: how many chances do I need to give this guy?

The Visit takes a different approach in style to Shyamalan's previous horror endeavors in that it is entirely done in a found footage, faux-documentary style. The ones behind the camera are Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two children who go on a weeklong trip to meet their estranged grandparents for the first time. Of course, things aren't all that they seem, and gradually the grandparents go from off-color to outright insane as the children try to figure out what is going on and how they can get through the week.

The film is listed on IMDb as "Comedy, Horror," and I think that comma in between is very important when describing the film. There are elements of humor, some of which hit the mark; there are elements of horror, a bit of which is legitimately creepy; there are also elements of family drama that is touched on occasionally. However, each of these elements are wholly separate from one another. The clever blending of genres found in films by Edgar Wright or Bong Joon-Ho is nowhere to be found as each bit is totally compartmentalized, contained to it's own scene. The result is that the decent suspense that is built up over a scene is completely brushed away when it cuts to a goofy rap by who Becca calls her "ethnically confused" brother. Similarly, any laughs that may be building up come crumbling down when things suddenly turn very serious.

I admire the fact that Shyamalan opted to try something new for him in doing it in a found footage style, but the hoops the film jumps through to make this make sense are so distracting that it defeats the purpose. It must have been such a strain to figure out how to get the camera to follow the action that he eventually just gave up; in one scene, the antagonist pops up in front of the hidden camera, then for no reason at all picks it up and carries it around, just so we can see everything. Even less believable, though, is the cinematic language spouted by these young suburban kids, both of whom know what mise en scène is–give me a break.

What comes across most of all, however, is just how clever Shyamalan thinks he is. If you thought the character progression points in the end of Signs were just too precious...well they are pretty much identical here. Both of the main characters have one abundantly clear character flaw that is verbally explained several times, and in the climax of the film, they each have to overcome that exact flaw/fear. When I say exact, I mean literally their fear. Much like the film in general, The Visit has very little underneath the absolutely superficial.

But if you somehow didn't get the gist of the telegraphed themes that are just short of Shyamalan himself popping up and holding up a written sign, the film gives us not one, but two tacked-on ending scenes that follow what should be the real ending (which was actually pretty effective, and shot very well). In the first, the kids and their mother get one more chance to say literally how they feel, following that old screenwriting rule that you should always tell instead of show–that's cinematic, right? The last-last scene consists of Tyler AKA "T-Diamond Stylus" performing a freestyle rap that sums up the events of the film. Yep, you read that correctly.

Despite my better intuition, I went in trying my best to give the film a chance; I had a soft spot for his earlier films, and I would have loved to have the stain of the last ten years of terrible films washed away in a glorious return to form. Unfortunately, we're left with a film that seems to have had it's entire story written on a napkin, then being fleshed out by clunkily adding in bursts of humor and forcing it into the tiresome found footage format. The only way I can advocate seeing this film is to see an example of extremely lazy screenwriting and a lackluster attempt to create new and unique horror.

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