Are we allowed to judge a single work in relation to its kin? Can a work of art be “good in comparison”, or must it stand alone? The inverse must also be considered – is a film bad simply because it is not as good as a director’s past work? It is far, far too easy to point and shriek at John Carpenter’s The Ward as evidence of his decline, and it is true that it cannot hold a candle to his days of glory, but is it that much worse than the hordes of horror movies fans are subjected to on a daily basis? M. Night Shymalan’s The Visit is a prime candidate to propose just this question: is it good, or just better?
Following young siblings Becca and Tyler in the former’s mockumentary project to rebuild the burnt bridges between their mother and grandparents, The Visit mark’s Shyamalan’s supposed return to horror – or at least his first genuine attempt to unsettle his audiences in quite some time (it is debatable which of his films was the last to frighten – Signs has this blogger’s vote). And in that department, it is hard to argue against; The Visit is filled with memorably creepy imagery and moments of tension.
Much of the weight is leveled with attempts at heart and humour – unfortunately, almost all of these fall flat. Becca’s smarty-pants dialogue is forced and trite (“I downloaded the definition” is an honest statement she makes holding a computer, begging the question if Shyamalan knows how the Internet works), and brother Tyler’s interest lies in “rapping”, in the loosest tense, and all scene involved herein are cringing and even more horrific than the moments that are meant to be intentionally so.
Unsympathetic protagonists aside, The Visit brings the goods when it needs to, and the uncanny progression of oddness that arrives as the week stay at grandma’s house is surprisingly well-paced. The film suffers all the standard setbacks of the first-person mockumentary-it’s-not-found-footage-it’s-different-please-think-it’s-different, but by now we should all be accustomed to this (perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that this complacency is now required of horror audiences).
There is a nice balance in the first two acts of keeping it low-key with ‘old people are weird’ explanations. Things certainly go up and onward from there, and the act three reveal is well-handled. Small character quirks (such as the brother’s claimed fear of germs) are utterly useless and without import, being completely forgotten for much of duration of the film only to be shoved back into our memories only when it becomes “plot relevent” (if it ever was to begin with) and the things would have been crisp and cleaner without them at all.
The Visit is an entertaining experience that shows that yes, M. Night Shyamalan still knows how to tap into something truly eerie and macabre, but no, he still has a terrible sense of humour. The Visit would have been all the more effective if it had embraced its hair-raising nature rather than failing at attempting to portray a false sense of hope and familiarity. There is enough of a fun and lighthearted nature in the scares themselves without this.