Spoilers. Spoilers. Spoilers.
Aged nineteen a small town girl, living in a lonely world, ran away with a substitute English teacher. Her parents had tried to persuade her that it was an awful idea. They had begged her to stay. On that afternoon, before she fled, something ‘awful’ happened during that confrontation, which led to the relationship between her and her parents being severed. The girl and her now-husband had a baby girl shortly after, followed two years later by a baby boy. Ten years later the substitute English teacher ran away with another woman, leaving behind his wife and two young children. A difficult five years followed, with the three still struggling to come to terms with the abandonment. That’s when a message arrives from her parents, who found them online. They acknowledge that it may be difficult to re-establish their relationship with their daughter, but would love to start one with their grandchildren. The grandchildren agree and beg to visit their grandparents. The mother reluctantly agrees, sending them off to her old hometown, whilst she herself goes on holiday with her new partner.
The grandchildren make their own way there by train, and are met at the station by their anxiously waiting grandparents who are holding a banner decorated with welcomes. They drive back to the family home, and a mutual fondness is formed. The grandparents dot on the grandchildren and their quirks, and the grandchildren are bemused by these old folks whose bedtime is 9:30pm. At 10.15pm the granddaughter leaves her bedroom to be greeted by her grandmother pacing the downstairs in a trance and projectile vomiting. The next day this is explained away by a tummy bug.
For the rest of their week-long stay the grandchildren realise that there is more than just character quirks going on here, something is seriously wrong. What makes them think this? The grandfather stores hundreds of used adult diapers in the shed. The grandmother runs around the house naked at night scraping the walls and crawling around the floor. She sits in a rocking chair cackling to herself whilst staring at the wall. She chases them underneath the house. She has a breakdown whilst discussing ‘that afternoon’ and also spends one night waiting outside the grandchildren’s room holding a knife.
When having a conversation via Skype with their mother they hold the camera towards the grandparents and the plot twist is revealed – those are not actually their grandparents. The mother tells them to try to escape and that she is on their way. The grandchildren are trapped into playing a game of trivial pursuit, during the course of which all is revealed. For when the granddaughter escapes into the basement she find the bodies of an elderly couple – a framed photograph beside them reveals that they were her grandparents. The imposters are escaped mental patients, who wanted to pretend to have a family just for a week. They were jealous of the actual grandparents, who were volunteer therapists. In fact, the fake-grandmother had actually drowned both of her own children.
Two confrontations happen, with fake-grandfather rubbing a used diaper in the face of the grandson and the fake-grandmother chasing the granddaughter around a locked bedroom. The granddaughter kills the fake-grandmother with shards of a broken mirror. The grandson, with the aid of his sister, kills the fake-grandfather by slamming his head in the fridge doors multiple times. The mother then arrives and takes them to safety; the final scene has the mother revealing the ‘awful’ events of that afternoon fifteen years ago. She had slapped her mother and her father had slapped her in return. Fade to black.
There are so many issues with this film it is hard to start. So instead of a normal review, which would instead become an incomprehensible and lengthy rant, I will instead use bullet points to divide these issues into sections.
- Child Safety: The fact the mother does not actually check the children have been collected by the right people. Yes, she has not seen or spoken her parents for fifteen years who explain her reluctance to do so, but surely any parent would want to perform some sort of check? This aspect then undermines and already ridiculous plot twist. During the week the mother tries to explain away the oddness of the grandparents by stating that they elderly. But, realistically, the problems that the grandchildren are describing cannot be explained by that when considering how old the grandparents should be. If the mother was nineteen when she had the children, the oldest of which is now fifteen, her parents really couldn’t be much older than seventy. When her children describe these incidents to her, wouldn’t she be shocked that her parents were acting in such a way?
- Plot twist: After a week of increasingly terrifying antics from the grandparents – which they attempt to explain away with a night-induced form of sleep disorder as well as a– to explain be explained away by the fact ‘well, they were crazy’ is so flawed and archaic that it’s offensive. Considering this is 2015, to have a portrayal of escaped mental patients is already asking for trouble, but to then assign them traits such as staring into the distance at nothing, an obsession with bodily functions, homicidal tendencies (involving knives, hammers and ovens), crawling along floors, scrapping at walls and screaming is disturbing in its facileness. The fact that both grandparents try to explain away their behaviours with varying excuses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s may anger some, let alone the fact the children do not question whether these things could actually be related to the frightening behaviour of their grandparents, is also problematic.
- Storytelling: This is yet another M Night Shyamalan film that depends on a twist. The Sixth Sense is viewed as his best attempt at this, though that film only holds up for two viewings maximum before the novelty is shed. Interestingly, at the preview screening I attended Shyamalan was asked whether he wrote the plot twist first then filled in the rest. Shyamalan vehemently denied this, claiming he wrote stories about people and the twist followed. There is no evidence of this claim upon watching The Visit. Unlike The Sixth Sense, few will inflict a repeat viewing upon themselves. The film hinges on the twist, and your opinion on the twist will depend on whether you actually care about the main characters.
- Characterisation: The grandchildren will divide audiences. 15-year-old Beca is a profoundly pretentious wanna-be documentary maker, who views life as a series of moments that she could record if they have the correct lighting and naturalistic elements. 13-year-old Tyler is a wanna-be rapper who tries to make up for his pre-pubescent features with attempts at charm and swagger. He likes to freestyle rap. They are each given a character trait which the film deems in need of ‘fixing’. Beca has low self-esteem and cannot look at herself in the mirror. Tyler is a germaphobe. Again, if you end up caring about the characters who may consider this important. Or, you may think it’s a waste of time.
- Shaky Cam: Used to tell the entire film. Overused and nausea-inducing.
- Genre mash-up: A blending of genres can work. This one doesn’t. Shyamalan explained that he wanted to blend family drama with the horror elements, along with comedy. The result is a film which is confused about what it actually wants it to be. It creates tension, sheds it to try to make you laugh, then tries for a quick scare.
- Ending: Five people die during the film. By having a final sequence with the mother recounting the events of that afternoon fifteen years ago, reconnecting with herself and her past, then suggests that this was the entire purpose of the movie. That everything her children endured, and that those five people died for, was to allow her to come to terms with the events and herself. The fact the actual events of that afternoon remain secret creates tension that is bound for anti-climax. For what could be as awful as what her children endured, or the fact both her parents are now dead? Yes, the fact she hit her mother and her father retaliated was awful, but if one were to rank awful events during this film it would not own the number one place. The fact we are not given many opportunities prior to develop sympathy for her, reduces the emotional response that is supposed to be generated.
The Visit is only roughly ninety minutes long, but it feels like so much more. It’s bloated with ridiculousness, flawed ideas and frustrating characters.