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“The Visit” is the latest horror film to hit our screens and whilst it isn’t perfect, it definitely offers some real scares. On the surface this film has two major issues; the first is that it utilises a found footage format which audiences are becoming increasingly frustrated with, and the second is that it was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. However, these issues fade away as the film hits its halfway point, with endearing and off-kilter performances capturing the audience’s attention, and the found footage format used to facilitate genuine character development rather than simple jump scares.

Personally, I think that Shyamalan gets a rough time of it from critics, because although he’s made some awful movies he’s also responsible for some real gems. His filmography is one of inconsistency rather than incapability, a mixed bag with “The Sixth Sense” and “After Earth” acting as two ends of a very strange spectrum. It’s crazy that the same person is responsible for both, but at the end of the day every director has one or two bad films on their resume. Here Shyamalan is at his brilliant best, returning to the genre that made him famous – psychological horror.

“The Visit” is about two children, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), as they visit their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), for the first time. Initially the pair warm to their grandparents and everyone gets along, even though Nana and Pop Pop are a little odd, but things take a disturbing turn when Becca breaks the 9:30pm curfew set by Pop Pop. From there things only get more unsettling and the film begins to whittle away at the audience’s nerves with each night that passes.

The reason that found footage comes into play is that Becca is an aspiring filmmaker, who sets out at the start of the film with the goal of making a documentary for her mother, played by Kathryn Hahn, to earn her forgiveness from Nana and Pop Pop for an event which happened fifteen years ago. It’s an interesting way to integrate a home movie feel into the film and it’s one that is constantly reaffirmed by Becca’s actions, as she makes repeated references to the way she wants things to be shot and certain lines to be said. Although there’s no reason in particular why the movie wouldn’t have worked better in a typical format rather than as a found footage pseudo-documentary, the way the movie was filmed didn’t break my immersion.

The surprising thing about this movie is that it has a great sense of humour. The first trailer I saw for “The Visit” made me laugh, but not for the right reasons; I just thought it looked ridiculous! I was expecting some sort of bizarre supernatural story whereby two grandparents had become vessels for the devil, or perhaps Nana was trying to fatten up the children so she could eat them for supper. However, having seen the film it’s very obvious that the silliness in the trailer was intentional, and whilst the movie is a bit wacky, it’s meant to be that way. The film doesn’t have a supernatural element as the trailer suggests, instead it has a firm grounding in mental health, ageing, and losing your connection to your family.

The first two themes listed here are obvious given the nature of Nana and Pop Pop, as both are in their later years and a little bit loco. The movie blurs the lines between the two, intertwining one with the other as Becca and Ed attempt to rationalise Nana and Pop Pop’s behaviour. The latter, on the other hand, relates more to the children’s loss of a father figure, and also their mother’s separation from her parents. This is a clear motivation for Becca and Ed and also for their mother, as perhaps the only reason why she agrees to let them stay with Nana and Pop Pop in the first place is that she’s a single parent struggling with the pressures that come along with raising teenagers, along with the fact that she feels guilty for her part in denying them an important figure in their lives. “The Visit” is about real issues that people face on a daily basis and how attempting to cope with them can lead to painful and sometimes horrific situations, which in my opinion is what sets it apart from most found footage horror films.

In addition to a strong script with a surprising amount of depth, “The Visit” is elevated by two creepy performances from Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, who are both deeply unnerving. Nana is clearly the more sinister of the grandparents, not only because her spindly frame and ghost-like complexion remind us all just how frightening little old ladies can be, but also because when she isn’t acting like a woman possessed she’s incredibly calm and straight faced. When she isn’t running around the house or scratching at the walls she looks at the children with eyes that seem lifeless, devoid of affection and joy, meaning that no matter what she’s doing she appears to be ready to attack. She’s simply menacing, to a degree that a kindly old woman should never be.

Pop Pop is scary for a completely different reason. He doesn’t seem quite as crazy as Nana, nor does he chase the children around under the house like a spasming spider, but it’s clear that physically he is capable of doing real damage, and the fact that his mind sometimes seems to escape him makes that all the more disquieting. Pop Pop just never seems present, never quite there – there’s always something clouding his mind. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie make the film what it is, because they give their characters a quirky peculiarity that’s both endearing and frightening, leaving the audience wondering what on earth could be wrong with them.

Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are also very good as Becca and Tyler, and they have a surprising on-screen chemistry. You believe that these two young actors could be brother and sister, as they squabble over the smallest of issues and throw playful jibes in one another’s direction, and they really seem to get along.

“The Visit” is a stellar return to form for M. Night Shyamalan and a fantastic horror film in its own right. It’s a subdued affair which burns slowly, but the performances carry it through, as Nana is a truly scary antagonist and the children are very charming. It’s a smart film about ageing and the perceptions that surround it, as well as mental illness and family issues – Shyamalan at his best.

8/10

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