The Visit

VisitDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn

After 2002’s Signs, a director named M. Night Shyamalan went into a tailspin the likes of which have not been seen since, well, the star of Signs, Mel Gibson.  Of course, Shyamalan’s tailspin was creative in nature, while Gibson’s was…well the opposite.  Six films have borne the Shyamalan name since 2002, each literally worse than the previous.  Fast forward to 2015.  Fox airs a little “event” series on Thursday nights called Wayward Pines adapted, produced, and occasionally directed by Shyamalan that aired over the summer and ended up being a modest hit.  Now with The Visit, Shyamalan strikes while the iron’s hot, delivering his best film in 13 years and combined with Wayward Pines, successfully reminding us of what a talent he really is.

The Visit represents both a return to form as well as a departure for the eccentric director.  First, after multiple flops in the science fiction genre, Shyamalan returns to what put him on the map – scares.  However, no doubt inspired by his producing partners Blumhouse Productions – the company that produced Paranormal Activity– this is Shyamalan’s first “found footage” style film.  Like mockumentary television comedies, I think the sun is quickly setting on the “found footage horror film,” but Shyamalan manages to pull it off here with a personally financed lightning fast production that took 25 crew members 30 days to shoot.

The Visit follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge) as she determines to film a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) first encounter with their estranged grandparents whom they’ve never met.  Now adolescents, Becca and Tyler have finally decided to start a dialogue with their mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn) that revealed a mysterious falling out had occurred between Paula and her parents.  Consequently, Becca forces her mother to arrange a visit so that she and Tyler can finally meet their grandparents, with a covert agenda that Paula can take a much deserved cruise with her serious boyfriend, Robert (Benjamin Kanes).

Becca and Tyler get their wish and with video camera in hand, they arrive by train somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, greeted by grandparents John (Peter McRobbie), and Dorris (Deanna Dunagan).  Becca and Tyler are driven to their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse where they expect to spend a week getting to know each other and making family memories.  On the surface, all seems to be on the up and up, except for two rules John and Dorris have for the kids: 1.  Don’t go in the basement and 2.  Don’t leave your room after 9:30 PM.  These two rules act as the catalyst for the film’s simple yet unrelenting tension.  What’s outside the bedroom door?  What’s that sound?  What’s in the basement?  You’ll have to see the film to find out.

The Visit capitalizes on simple, primal fear.  It is a potboiler that while effective, still does not quite measure up when compared to Shyamalan’s early work.  However, the film is a major step in the right direction for the auteur who like his Sixth Sense protagonist, was in danger of permanently fading from the public eye (and don’t give me that spoiler alert garbage, it was 1999!).  As a critic, The Visit does little to affect my annual lament about the lack of inspired, diverse, original content in the horror genre.  Still, it does offer some good scares and a reasonably effective twist.  Also Oxenbould is fantastic as the younger brother, Tyler.  The infusion of humor that Tyler’s character brings to the film is perhaps its greatest achievement.  While most horror films tend to feel like clones of others, The Visit does attempt to cross genres not unlike the Evil Dead sequels or Gremlins.  Shyamalan still has something left to prove, but now at least we’re much more interested in watching him try.  B

The Visit is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.    

Mama

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Mama (an excuse to critically discuss horror)

The horror genre has an unusual history in the cinematic world. Unlike traditional genres like comedy and drama, horror films seem aimed at a slightly more specialized market. And yet, with this specialized market, one would expect more diversity in the content, but history has revealed that this is not the case. Studios that release horror films seem to pray on popular cultural fads and then, most likely due to inexpensive production costs, let loose clone after clone after clone until these films eventually become less lucrative. Take a look at how many films follow this storyline: a mother notices some strange behavior in her child or around the house. She tells her husband, but her pleas fall on deaf ears; she must simply be imagining the pots and pans all stacking themselves all over the kitchen. Eventually, the husband witnesses something he can’t explain and (hesitantly) agrees to contact an expert or specialist in strange behavior who is found on the Internet. Chaos ensues. The expert dies trying to help, one or more friends of the protagonist become victims, and it ends right where it started with a tiny difference that ties everything together. This form of formulaic market saturation as a business model may keep the genre alive, but it has also lessened its reputation. There’s no doubt that horror films have the potential to affect an audience more than any other type of film since audience reaction is basically the watermark for success (consider those film trailers that do not show clips of the film, but rather show a packed, darkened theater of people wildly reacting to some outrageously scary moment).

Now, I am actually a horror fan and will concede that some of the greatest films are horror films (The Sixth Sense, The Exorcist, Frailty – look it up-, Jaws). However, the worst film of nearly every year is also a horror film (intentionally or unintentionally). Consequently, I am always wary of cinema that resists progress to idly make money off of spent franchises that are too cheap, production-wise, to give up. They make you want to cry for your…

Mama is the latest demented fable loosely attached to Guillermo del Toro, regardless of the relentless name dropping that advertisements display. Del Toro did produce, but his influence ends there, and thus, Mama is not Pan’s Labyrinth. Mama begins with a catastrophic series of events that result in two young girls being abandoned in a strange cottage in the woods where they will live for five years before being discovered. Exposition sweeps us through a bizarrely simplified adoption process where the girls’ uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is permitted to raise the girls in a state funded research house in order for the girls to be continuously observed by a psychologist. At this point, most of the stereotypical formula laid out previously proceeds.

Mama is written and directed by Andres Muschietti who bases it off of his own short film, also called Mama. Fundamentally, the story is not incredibly strong, and leaves the viewer with some noteworthy qualms, but Muschietti clearly understands where the few strengths of his story exist and manages to create a couple good scares. Additionally, he adds some fresh complexity to the film by writing Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as a bass guitarist in a punk band who is apprehensive about having children and settling into a housewife role, but suddenly finds herself doing both. Muschietti also makes another honorable choice in that he tells a ghost story where the revelation of the ghost itself is not the object of the film. He, instead, introduces the ghost early and uses it as his chief form of tension building; that and the kids. The kids are creepy.

Mama is what it is. It raises no bars, but it holds a reasonably heavy one somewhat steadily in place. Expect the upcoming months to offer at least four more “clones” of this film as this fad works its way out. Then it should be smooth sailing… until it all starts over again in September. C