Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’ is another found-footage bummer

Once again, why does this have to be a first-person narrative?

It's not “found footage,” because that implies the footage was lost at some point, and that's not the conceit of the film. And yet Blumhouse presents a film that would have worked perfectly well as a regular film with the “I can't stop filming everything” device grafted onto it, and the result is less than it could have been in the most frustrating of ways.

One of the things that is most surprising here is that M. Night Shyamalan has apparently given up completely, and is happy to simply be sucking fumes off other people's success now. Seriously… this is where he is at this point? Making one of these omnipresent “boy, I wish someone owned a tripod” horror movies built around a single uninteresting plot point? It has been a tough sixteen years since his breakthrough with “The Sixth Sense,” and there seems to be no bottom to his decline, unfortunately. If this was someone's first film, I'd be okay with the small signs of life that make this merely an annoying film instead of a completely dreadful one, but for this to be the latest work by a guy who made his first impression on the general public by sticking to his guns and refusing to compromise his voice… unthinkable.

Someone challenged me on Twitter, asking if I have the same problem with the first-person technique in novels. Nope. No, I do not. Because in a novel, there is not the artificial need to manufacture a reason someone never stops filming in a situation that should be flat out impossible for them to film. I think there are plenty of ways you can make a first-person narrative and have it still be interesting or clever. One of the movies I'm excited to see here at Toronto is called “Hardcore,” and the entire thing is done POV. But in that case, there's no conceit that someone is holding a camera the entire time. It's just a choice to tell the story from the POV of the main character, something that's been tried plenty of times before, stretching back at least to “Lady In The Lake,” a Raymond Chandler adaptation in 1947.

But this new approach, in which we have to not only have an excuse for characters using the cameras but also buy that they manage to capture all the perfect moments in just the right way without ever missing anything or putting the camera down for the sake of their own safety? It's both creative crutch and storytelling handcuffs. As a crutch, it props up filmmakers who are too scared to just tell the story. Here's a good test: if you told the story without using the found footage device, would it still be scary or interesting? If not, then you are just leaning on the technique and not actually doing anything with it. And if so, then why bother? That's when it becomes a pair of handcuffs, forcing you to adhere to a certain set of rules when you might be better served by simply shooting it as a film, allowing you to cut and shoot in a way that would deliver a stronger overall experience.

“The Visit” tells the story of Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), two kids whose Mom (Kathryn Hahn) has spent over 20 years estranged from her parents. When they get in touch with her online and ask to spend some time with their grandkids, she agrees to send them for a week. She's still too nervous about something that went down between them before she left home, and so she sends the kids alone. Becca is a young filmmaker, and she's decided to make a documentary that she hopes will help reconcile her mother with Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan). Since this is a horror film from Blumhouse, it's safe to say things do not go according to plan.

From the moment Olivia and Tyler arrive, both Nana and Pop Pop are very strange, and if you've ever had to deal with loved ones going through some sort of mental deterioration or dementia, then (A) you have my undying sympathy and (B) you're not going to enjoy most of this film. There's talk of “sundowning,” there are jokes about incontinence, and in general, the film hinges on treating the mental ravages of age as creepy and scary, something many audience members will find offensive. The problem is that Shyamalan has basically written one of those “and then they found the bloody hook HANGING FROM THE CAR OF THE DOOR!” shaggy dog urban legends in film form, and the entire thing hinges on a single reveal. Once that reveal has been made (and it's not really a twist, no matter how many people will mislabel it as one), there's nothing left for the film to do but race to the finish line, which turns out to be fairly anti-climactic and small-scale. It oddly feels like Shyamalan has a weird 1950s attitude towards mental illness, like anyone who is off is automatically creepy instead of sick and still deserving of some dignity and understanding.

There is nothing gained from shooting this as a fake documentary, and in fact, thanks to the way Shyamalan uses music during one key sequence, he undermines whatever small tension he'd established up to that point, turning what should be his film's dramatic climax into a weirdly off-tone joke. I used to think Shyamalan was getting better as a director even as he was getting weaker as a writer, but now I'm just not sure where he is as a filmmaker at all. This entire thing is hobbled by bad choices and weird impulsive mistakes. There was a time when he chose his cinematographers carefully and considered every shot. Now he's happy to lean into the trend that makes it feel like very film was shot by a cast member who has no business holding a camera.

When you're making a film with kids as the lead, the director's job is doubly difficult, because you often have to work even harder to help them understand tone and the specifics of what you want. Shyamalan's work with young actors has been very strong in the past, but he seems to strand both DeJonge and Oxenbould here. Oxenbould was the lead in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day,” and he was fine in that big loud Disney kid way because that's what the movie was. Here, though, they have him rapping repeatedly, and it made me want to crawl out of my skin. Someone should have known that once was more than enough for that particular gag, and they keep going back to it, right down to the closing credits. It's not funny, it's not revealing, and it's not good character writing.

I think both Dunagan and McRobbie have it even worse, though. Because their characters have to be seen through the filter of “are they creepy, or is something else going on?” the whole way through, they are never allowed to really play their characters. They're playing situations, changing as needed for each scene. It's a shame, because there is something real that the film hints at and flirts with that it just can't quite pull together, and both of these actors are good enough that they could have carried a stronger film.

Here's the thing… this may do well. It features a number of big dumb jump scares, one or two big “ewwwwww” moments, and it all goes down fairly painless. But at this point, I am practically daring Blumhouse to go a year without leaning on movies shot like this. If Shyamalan had simply made this as a movie, without the gimmick, there's a chance it would have worked much better. As it is, even if it makes money, it's going to be forgotten quickly, one of a hundred movies that all blend into this indistinguishable mass of movies all shot with a shaky camera. Horror is a genre that can be used an infinite number of ways, and when it all looks and sounds the same, how scary can any of it be?

“The Visit” is in theaters tomorrow.