This weekend, I watched The Visit. I didn't mean to, exactly — my girlfriend's teen sister was having a birthday, and we took her and a few friends out to celebrate. Said teens really, really wanted to see The Visit, so there I was, actually paying money to see a new M. Night Shyamalan movie. I thought it might be sort of terrible, like so many of the once-hailed director's other modern efforts — the barely passable silliness of The Village, the unwatchable Lady in the Water, the laughable The Happening.
But no. The Visit came out of nowhere, and it made me scream and cling to the edge of my seat like no other horror movie in recent memory. Except for The Babadook last year.
Let me first say that The Visit isn't on quite the same level as The Babadook. Last year's film about a frazzled single mother, her difficult young son and the horrible monster they unleash when they read a creepy book was a quiet masterpiece of modern horror. It's worth watching again in relation to The Visit, and I'm going to return to it several times in this piece. Both movies trade common trope-y monsters for much more mundane (and effective) domestic terrors.
In The Visit, 15-year-old documentarian Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go for a visit to their grandparents, whom they've never met before. Their loving mother (Kathryn Hahn) is estranged from her parents, but agrees to the trip and goes off to her own vacation, leaving the precocious filmmaker and her rapper (yes, rapper) brother to visit "Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie)" on their own.
Something is clearly wrong from the start. Things aren't quite right with the elders, and it all just gets weirder and worse for the kids as they make it through the week in the grandparents' rural farmhouse.
Besides playing on the documentary format and "found footage" style of horror and winking directly at the camera through our young protagonist, The Visit gives voice to fears we all have about growing old. It looks at the awful realities associated with losing control of our bodies and our minds, about the literal horrors of growing old. It's genuinely terrifying at times, without using supernatural goofiness as a crutch.
This is horror at its most powerful, when it strips away all of the layers of protection we collectively use to hide from our deepest fears and takes a long, hard look at them.
Maybe you've had to deal with a parent or other family member going through dementia. Or you've had to watch someone you love go from the strong, vigorous person they once were to a shadow of their former self. Aging is something most of us face, sooner or later, and the inevitability of its nastiest implications is bone-chilling. You certainly don't need a horror movie to be afraid of these things. But good horror fiction that looks directly at them can be helpful.
The Babadook focused directly on grief, parenting and abuse — and another set of hard truths — but both films offer very clear, potent looks at difficult fears. Familial bonds may be one of the most important things in the world, but they can also be hell.
Both The Babadook and The Visit take place largely in one setting — the ordinary, boring family house. There's a sense of uncomfortable familiarity about the homes in each movie. The doors are harbingers of terrible things. The neighbors not much help. The protagonists in each movie are trapped in domestic hells that look and sound and probably smell just like the places most of us live in, not some overwrought mansion or delicately sparse apocalypse.
This makes the tension all the more unsettling, the terror all the more biting. As with the fabulous P.T. last year, being bound to one simple, mundane place that seems familiar and comfortable at first — and subtly twists into something else entirely — makes for a potent kind of horror.
Out of nowhere
The Babadook was a modestly budgeted film, from a first-time Australian director. It came out in the U.S. to very little fanfare, with a limited release opening and soon a launch on streaming video. The Visit is a modestly budgeted found-footage horror film from a once-beloved major Hollywood director who has made a string of increasingly terrible movies in the last few years. Remember The Last Airbender? Woof. But yet, here it is, a small-scoped picture with an actual heart and soul (and sense of humor, even) that works on every level.
It's as if the writer-director stopped trying too hard, and instead applied his trademark imagination in a way that made sense for the movie he was making. It clicked!
Laughing or screaming
The Visit is very much its own movie. It's very funny at times — Shyamalan is laying it on thick with Becca's precocious director antics, but my audience was positively eating up some of the wackier scenes and grossest moments.
But, in a lot of positive ways, it mirrors the brilliant, seeping weirdness of The Babadook's brand of "mundane" terror. I can think of no better compliment for a modern horror movie of this scope, and no better comeback for the director who once worked real magic with the genre.
Welcome back, M. Night. I hope you have more creepy, terrifying tales to tell us.