Universal (2015) 94 min. PG-13
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti; Editing: Luke Franco Ciarrocchi
Production Design: Naaman Marshall; Set Decoration: Christine Wick; Costumes: Amy Westcott; Score: Paul Cantelon
Stars: Olivia DeJonge (Rebecca Jamison), Ed Oxenbould (Tyler Jamison), Kathryn Hahn (Paula Jamison), Deanna Dunagan (Nana), Peter McRobbie (Pop Pop), Benjamin Kanes (Robert Mendelsohn), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Stacey)
When director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was originally released, way back when, playing concurrent with The Blair Witch Project, the two movies went head to head in a standoff to determine which path horror would head down in the new millennium. The Sixth Sense was professionally put together and stylistically innovative, with a pull the rug out from under you sensibility that toyed with its own narrative form and the concept of visual storytelling itself. The Blair Witch Project on the other hand swung to the opposite extreme with its amateurish, low-budget, hardscrabble approach paring both horror and cinema down to their bare essentials in order to play on viewers’ most primal fears of the unseen and the unknown.
If The Visit, Shyamalan’s latest, about two children, Rebecca and Tyler, who embark on vacation to the rural Pennsylvania farm of their Nana and Pop Pop, grandparents they’ve never met is any indication, he’s reached a point of capitulation, yielding to the off-the-cuff, gonzo aesthetics of Blair Witch and its legion of descendants. The imaginative director, who did so much to reprieve horror from the tired clichés it was trapped in back in 1999 has now fallen into that most hackneyed of modern horrors himself – the found footage format, complete with shaky, handheld camerawork and soul-searching video monologues delivered directly into the lens.
Perhaps coerced by a pretty bumpy last decade full of box office slumps that saw his status as a leader in the field increasingly slip, it’s still a depressingly sad day for fans invested in the promise of horror’s most esteemed holdout. The director may consider this film a simple discursive experiment in style (maybe he just wants to demonstrate he can conquer the found footage format as easily as any other), but he seems to have formally sold out with this one, forsaking, or at the very least compromising, his own signature style in order to fall in lockstep behind others. But for all that The Visit isn’t a bad movie. Which isn’t to say it’s necessarily a good one either. It’s just so-so.
The film’s finest quality is the absence of that artistic pretension that has marred many an operatic Shyamalan sci-fi fantasy. Having characters address the camera (and us) here destroys the fourth wall, imparting the movie with a plain and simple directness that goes a long ways toward ensuring the director remains down to earth. Visually and narratively, things are kept at a relatively rudimentary level, plucking at the sort of primordial childhood fears of the dark, monsters under the bed, potty training, strange noises, unfamiliar surroundings that disorient us, stranger danger, the sneaking suspicion that those we love aren’t who we think they are, as did the grim fairy tales audiences were brought up on. Where The Blair Witch Project invoked “Hansel and Gretel” and other children’s stories about babes lost in the wood, The Visit’s primary source of inspiration is “Little Red Riding Hood.” Again two children are sent on a journey to visit grandparents who turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. Initially they fear their relatives might be uncool, only to find there are far more pressing matters to contend with than the prospect of boredom, namely, simple survival. Unlike most kids, they certainly can’t claim they weren’t kept entertained on this family vacation.
There’s few other filmmakers working today who find such inspiration in invoking the places from which they hail. Shyamalan shows us the Pennsylvania he grew up in the same way Scorsese shows us the mean streets of little Italy, his intimate familiarity with the surroundings giving us a greater sense that we are seeing the country as it really is, through the eyes of an insider. From the perspective of these cynical city dwellers stranded in Amish country, cut off from civilization with both its modern amenities and comfortingly familiar urban hazards, it seems they’ve wandered into a weird, alternate reality. Their aged American Gothic grandparents, with their Spartan existence and austere, Puritanical fundamentalism, seem like they’re from another planet entirely, one so far outside the satellite range the kids can’t even get the sort of cell phone service that would permit them to holler cop.
Nothing scares young folk like the prospect of doddering old age (“What a bunch of confused old fools your grandparents turned out to be.”), which lies at the heart of many fairy tales, inspiring prejudices from the earliest age against the ancient and infirm. It’s a purely biological horror. The grandparents’ eagerness to play board games like Yahtzee points up the fact that the older one gets the more deeply they regress into their second childhood. Deprived of the dignity age is meant to confer, these grandparents have instead become what the young fear most – old and out of touch. The Visit’s mordantly sick, main joke is that the world of the elderly these spry little whippersnappers walk into seems so alien to them that the older generation may as well be from outer space. No longer able to exert any control over their wandering minds and incontinent bodies, their grandparents seem governed by some coldly inhuman, outside intelligence.
The possibility that we’re watching an invasion by body snatchers is never far from our mind since the aging process is treated as a form of hostile takeover in which one is no longer in possession of their own faculties. Nana claims to have ‘deep darkies’ that prompt her to try strangling herself and Pop Pop to stick a shotgun in his mouth, a description that certainly makes clinical depression sound like some anthropomorphic alien contagion, allowing Shyamalan to subtly plant that germ of suspicion in our mind. It’s an impression enhanced by the Lady in the Water-like legend Nana (Tony-winning stage actress Deanna Dunagan) relates about creatures from another planet with invisible antennae who spit into the local pond to put the thirsty to sleep, leaving legions in suspended animation at the bottom, waiting to be taken back to the home planet someday.
There’s an equally disturbing anecdote concerning Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie, who played a similarly off-putting, unpaternal old farmer in Brokeback Mountain) working in a factory at night where some unidentifiable, yellow-eyed thing was frequently spotted lurking around outside. Forgetting himself, he begins dressing for a nonexistent costume ball on the same day of every week as if he had a rendezvous with the mother ship. The crazy old codger’s advancing senility is treated in horror film terms, especially when he attacks an innocent guy on the street corner believing he’s being followed. And our own certainties about what exactly is going on have been so undermined by the director at this point we’re nearly as paranoid as the grandparents ourselves, reading cabals and conspiracies into everything. Clearly they’re holding tight to a secret they aren’t sharing.
The Visit has been designed in such a way to never let audiences look at old folk the same way again. Explaining Nana’s spontaneous regurgitation, Pop Pops says that sometimes his wife gets it in her head that she ate something bad and her body is trying to get it out. Considering that she keeps trying to convince her granddaughter to crawl into the oven to clean it from the inside, the subliminal suggestion is that there’s only one food source she’s really able to subsist on. The notion that she means to cook her grand kids is imagery lifted right out of “Hansel and Gretel,” invoking ideas of wicked witches. Then the plot starts our mind spinning on another track entirely by exposing us to her sundowning (“a neurological reaction to moonlight at dusk and nightfall… a lot of old people have it”), lycanthropic light switch behavior triggered by the rising moon, making the kids feel “…like we’re living with a werewolf.”
And we can’t help but to take this surmise seriously when her nocturnal condition causes her to run rampant, barreling through the crawl space on all fours, her hair falling in her face like some shambling beast, a self-grown hirsute that negates the need for any additional covering. Asked what sort of animal she’d be if she could be any animal, her grisly response is a bear so when she’s observed clawing at the woodwork as if marking her territory the wish seems to have been granted, further referencing disturbing fairy tales like Goldilocks. Shyamalan is not above injecting some Hitchcockian humor either, such as when it’s revealed by the counselor who stops by concerned that Nana has stopped volunteering at Maple Shade hospital that she ‘hasn’t been feeling herself’ lately. As it was with Psycho, the old lady startles us by moving as quickly as she does, such as when she races around the halls in the middle of the night.
Early on we start to suspect that everything is not as it seems, that the grandparents may be intending to eliminate the kids, Flowers in the Attic fashion, because their rebellious daughter (Kathryn Hahn) married against their wishes, her husband’s abandonment having proven them right and left her wishing to return home. Rebecca and Tyler seem the living embodiment of a union that should never have been and must be eradicated before the mother can be accepted back into the fold. The kids seem set to become sacrificial victims, blooding the keel. Considering that we’re given imagery of the grandfather chopping wood, Fargo fashion, which unduly invokes associations with Paul Bunyon and what damage axes can do, we don’t want them to anger these people. Already fearing Nana and Pop Pop mean to exact some form of fanatically arcane retribution for the sins of the mother, we shudder as the kids claim to be retracing her footsteps, sneaking out of the house when they slip downstairs to raid the cookie jar.
Since the reason she fled the farm originally, what occurred during that argument to cause a fifteen year falling out between parents and child isn’t made clear until the very end, the untold story is built up in our minds until it assumes monumental proportions. We can’t even be certain that the mother herself isn’t fully complicit, since for some reason it seems to take as long for the local cops she’s supposed to have called to come to the rescue as it does for her to arrive by public transit from the inner city. We don’t understand why she’s not more reticent about sending her kids into the lion’s den, seeming far too eager to relinquish custody for the duration in order to open a new chapter of her life with her current paramour. She might as well be trying to get rid of them.
Noting that their mom looks better off without them, they appear to have become a hindrance in her pursuit of a man who likely doesn’t want to be encumbered by kids from her previous marriage; they’ve become dead weight needing jettisoned. Spending a week in the country, the film counts down each day, like a ticking time bomb to build suspense, in much the same way The Ring did. As the sand slips through the hourglass we’re being made to feel that the underage protagonists are running out of time. When they pick teams for the Yahtzee board game, it’s young vs. old and that dividing line split right down the middle makes both sides seem an equal match. Ostensibly they’re pairing off for sport, but they’re really squaring of for the final showdown, the unbridgeable rift caused by the generation gap coming to a head as age and wisdom tries to beat youth and beauty.
The Visit’s rough-hewn, thread bare structure means that Shyamalan’s story line seems more transparent than usual, with the character arcs and finer points of dramatic exigency practically diagrammed for us. Viewers can ascertain underwiring which should have been drafted in invisible ink. Now that they’re incapable of being contributing members of society, these grandparents simply serve a utilitarian purpose for the younger generation, becoming the catalysts to help them exorcise the inner demons that are exposed during those candid, emotionally shattering interviews which leave their souls laid bare. Played by Olivia DeJonge from TV’s Hiding, Rebecca films everything as an excuse for a camera to always be in evidence, her direction of the life unfolding before her making her feel like master of her own fate. Which is why she finds it so discombobulating when the situation is reversed and she finds herself placed in the same position as her subjects.
Ending up on the opposite side of the camera, under glass bowl scrutiny, being asked the sort of questions she’d rather not answer as her brother accidentally changes focal length, zooming in slowly to make us feel as if we’re getting closer to her, seeing her clearly for the first time. Like him, Rebecca has felt worthless since their dad abandoned the family, leaving her life is disarray, like the shirt she’s slipped on inside out. Nurturing a crush on the pizza delivery boy because she believes he has kind eyes, the same eyes thought to be windows to the soul, the camera’s own eye stares unblinkingly at her during her interview, in a way she can’t bear to look at herself in the mirror anymore, disturbed by what she sees. Finally confronting her reflection face to face, as Rebecca must literally do at the end, is her means of staring down her demons.
Investigating his gramps odd behavior, Tyler says it smells like ass in the shed, realizing to his horror how right he actually is. His advanced germophobia, a compulsion to keep himself perfectly clean, is the only thing making him feel in control of his life with everything else in tailspin. Revealing his more deep-seated neuroses, Rebecca reminds Tyler how he talked in his sleep until he was seven, and that their dad was the only one who could quiet him down, his presence imparting a sense of safety and security to their lives. Claiming not to be mad at him over the desertion anymore, Tyler’s statement that “people leave because they find something better,” is telling as well, implying that he doesn’t believe himself to have been good enough, troubled by the irrational suspicion that his father abandoned them because he was disappointed in his son for freezing up during a football game, rather than tackling a peewee opponent. Given the boy’s outsized reaction when he believes there’s no soap after touching the toilet and the girl’s equally obsessive compulsive perfectionism, they seem set on the path toward becoming as screwed up as their grandparents, well on their way to being certified for the loony bin.
The kids must process their emotions over their father’s abandonment or risk being left in a situation of emotional estrangement identical to the one that their mother has found herself in, parent and child having grown so distant they don’t even recognize each other anymore (“Those aren’t your grandparents.”). Believing that what’s wrong with their Nana and Pop Pop is inextricably linked with the blowout that occurred on the day their daughter left, subconsciously they feel that reliving their mother’s past, making it the subject of their film and dissecting what went wrong, will afford the means to work through their own unresolved feelings toward their father.
This is why the kids, who describe their mom as a classic narrative character, try recreating history for their documentary, walking in her footsteps by playing hide and seek which their mother says she used to love, slipping downstairs at night, etc. Rebecca needs her grandparents to provide their mom the elixir that will expiate her conscience and allow her to let go of the past, rather than holding onto her anger. It’s a sentiment her daughter ultimately takes to heart, inserting home videos of her father into the finished documentary instead of editing him out as she’d initially intended. The supernatural serves as a healing balm here, same as it has in most Shyamalan movies, a form of therapeutic catharsis that dates all the way back to the psychoanalyst’s couch of The Sixth Sense, pushing people past their dramatic crisis into more fully realized lives.
The director, who has shown such a deft hand with talented child actors like Hayley Joel Osment, Abigail Breslin, Rory Culkin and others in the past, works the same wonders with the kids here. They play quite well off one another, each complementing the other by their contrast. Tyler, the younger of the two, may be smaller and move faster but as his sister points out, she’s smarter by several standard deviations. He’s all fun and frivolity to her aesthetic gravitas. Despite the many potshots at old age there’s plenty levied at the expense of the younger generation as well.
Shyamalan finds amusement in their pretentious affectations toward adulthood in the case of Rebecca and the search for a trendy identity in order to fit in, even if that leads them to identify with another race entirely, as with the ethnically confused Tyler, who fancies himself a rap artist. Though Tyler is patronized by his big sister with “I know you can’t completely understand because your brain isn’t fully developed,” and other casually breezy put-downs, he earns her respect by proving he’s “not as dumb as your performance on standardized tests would indicate.” While their Nana and Pop Pop are busy playing at something they’re not, these enterprising youngsters, who are far smarter than they pretend to be, act the way innocent little kids are supposed to so the adults won’t suspect anything is amiss, causing their grandparents, in a richly ironic twist, to observe that they both seem to be acting funny.
The Tyler of Australian actor Ed Oxenbould, star of Disney’s earlier, impossibly titled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has been included strictly for comic relief (he’s the nephew of comedian Ben Oxenbould). Trying to control his tongue, he resorts to using the names of singers in lieu of curse words, which becomes a colorful form of kid speak, his free form associations, such as shouting Sarah McLachlan when running across a heap of disposable adult diapers, or Kerry Underwood when their mother dismisses the concerns they raise about their grandparents’ behavior (“They’re just old.”), going far toward lightening the tension. If I’m not mistaken he even took the name of Celine Dion in vain.
These utterances are only second in laughs to his oft spoken dismissal of his sister by requesting her to “swerve,” in the opposite direction, his highly colorful appropriation of the idiom ‘talk to the hand.’ Equally amusing is the original manner he’s devised to give the birdie, whipping it out like a gift wrapped present (“I forgot I got you something.”). This little twerp is a caution as well as a skilled mimic, even imitating Nana’s sundowning with some Isadora Duncanish gyrations during their walk through the woods. When he improvises one of his original raps with a train conductor on the way to grandmother’s house, Rebecca who’s filming them, is pessimistic concerning the usability of the footage, since as she points out, not many Oscar-winning documentaries wrap by dropping misogynistic beats. The fact that The Visit actually does should put viewers at ease since it further assures us that the director isn’t intending to indulge his penchant for soulful, sci-fi philosophizing, committing himself instead to a more laid back ride, strictly for kicks, with this one.
The yin and yang of Shyamalan’s directorial approach is encapsulated in the kids themselves, as demonstrated when Rebecca enlists Tyler as her assistant director (doubling The Visit’s variety of angles and povs), entrusting him with a camera and detailed shooting script. Railing against the state of the art, her filmmaking pretensions come to a head when her younger brother challenges her vision, declaring nobody cares about cinematic standards anymore, at least not if the popularity of reality TV can be used as a standard of measure. In essence Shyamalan’s kidding himself, having resorted to the same found footage format so bemoaned in this film.
Where Rebecca’s striving for the prestigious, classical aesthetic the director himself sought in his earlier efforts, the younger boy is meant to represent the funnier flip side of filmmaking that he’s allowed to emerge here. It’s a side of the director we haven’t really been privy to before. And Shyamalan doesn’t adhere so rigidly to the rules of the format that he isn’t above bending them, capturing ambient weather patterns in shots that would have had to be taken by some second unit since we see no camera pointed at the rising moon as the sun goes down for instance. Just as most directors working in the found footage field expend their creativity coming up with ingenious ways to break up the visual monotony, Shyamalan has the kids set up a spy cam in the living room to capture their grandparents’ strange behavior. When it ends up dropped outside the bedroom door we’re offered an exciting alternate angle, while simultaneously being made to feel locked out from safety and security ourselves, left at the mercy of the madwoman stalking about like a caged tiger.
Rebecca is organizing her film, a living family history scored to her mom’s favorite soundtrack, coaching her subjects to relax and be natural during their interviews, trying to frame the perfect image, even requesting that the tree swing in the front yard be left to sway organically by the breeze rather than artificially pushed, at the same time we’re watching Shyamalan himself craft this homage to his own adolescent emergence as a talented young filmmaker. It all comes together before our eyes. Shyamalan uses the older girl as proxy, Rebecca’s desire to become a great director being identical to his own at her age, when he shot similar student films.
These kids may be retracing their mother’s last days down on the farm, but the director is actually using The Visit as a means of reliving his own past, fondly recalling his first forays into the art form, his preliminary trials and errors with the sort of amateur home movies that led to his present career path. The Visit seems to have been consciously designed with this subtext in mind since everyone we meet, including the conductor on the train and the counselor at the retirement home, claim they used to be actors once they catch a glimpse of the camera, while the grandparents are pulling off the greatest act of all. But there’s no open acknowledgment of this within the framework of the film itself, even while the movie and the movie within the movie dovetail, with Rebecca noting that “This is the big end to my film and like you said, Nan’s the star.”
Asking her subjects to give her context for the tales they relate on camera, such as how old they were at the time, Rebecca’s filmed confessionals provide a multitude of fascinating stories, these interwoven yarns forming a whole other layer to The Visit’s fabric. Shyamalan openly plays with the narrative form in a way most clever, and not so effectively done since The Sixth Sense, with his characters continually rattling off bizarre stories that are so vivid they fire our imaginations as we wonder whether we should believe them or not. Consistently rerouting viewer’s circuitry, the movie forces us to imagine one awful scenario after another. Where The Sixth Sense fooled us once, The Visit keeps us guessing time and again, involving us in the creative writing process that documentarian sister seems engaged in herself, so that the story line seems to be growing organically as the movie progresses.
For all he’s sacrificed in technique by regressing back to a more primitive cinematic state, Shyamalan proves his mastery of film narrative, his ability to thrill audiences through manipulation and misdirection, remains unrivaled. The Visit is littered with red herrings and its genius lies in the ability to let the viewers’ imagination run away with them over talk of werewolves, aliens, and free form references to other horror films (Nana is described as Michael Myers when the sun goes down), making us believe something far stranger, something truly out of this world is going on, magnifying our fears out of all proportion. Shyamalan’s trademark ‘surprise’ however is that the ending turns out to be so conventional in this film, an anticlimax really. It’s a disappointment after we’d been led to believe there was something far more eerie afoot.
And in that sense The Visit shares more in common with The Village than anything, right down to the poster art which also lists a set of rules to abide by in the rural Pennsylvania countryside. With nothing otherworldly hiding under the bed however, nothing to fear but fear itself, viewer’s appreciation of the film, as with most Shyamalan films, will largely hinge on the strength of their satisfaction with the surprise ending, whether they feel what’s actually happened is terrifying enough. Clearly Shyamalan sees this film as a loose riff on the notion of entertaining bulling, compelling in the moment but not to be taken seriously. The Visit is the sort of slap dash scary story with a flip ending one just tosses off around a campfire to give listeners goose bumps with the-call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house denouement suggesting urban legend as much as fairy tale.