Director M Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakthrough The Sixth Sense has proven to be quite the double-edged sword. A near-perfect, intelligent genre film, with one of the most notable endings in modern cinema, Shyamalan’s third feature sent him soaring into the A-list and opened the door to seemingly endless opportunity.
It also gave him a stratospheric benchmark against which he will always be measured, and his career has been one of diminishing returns. From the solid Unbreakable, to the dismal The Happening and After Earth, none of his subsequent films have come anywhere near that early high bar and his latest, The Visit, doesn’t so much limbo underneath as drag itself, tired and nonsensical, along the floor.
Shyamalan also pens this tale of a brother and sister, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) and Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), who visit their estranged grandparents (the excellent pairing of Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) out in the sticks, only to discover them indulging in some freaky behaviour after the sun goes down. Plugged into the universal, deep-rooted fear of ageing and dying, it’s a simple premise with undeniable potential for originality and scares.
The decision to frame the whole thing as found-footage, however, is a fundamental flaw; not only is it a tired concept (the pinnacle of the sub-genre, The Blair Witch Project, was released in the same year as The Sixth Sense) but it also fatally constricts both the narrative and the action. Everything is seen through the camera of precocious wannabe-documentarian Rebecca, and the organic flow of the story is hampered by her constant involvement. There’s a moment in which we glimpse how it could have worked – a raw, climactic sequence in a darkened room – but everything else is too contrived to be genuinely frightening.
Another major issue with The Visit is its tone: it alternates between horror and comedy, without convincing at either. Much of the attempts at humour are derived from the fact that Nana and Pop Pop are old and infirm, exhibiting odd behaviour that could easily point to their advancing age, eroding mental faculties and – in one grossly derogatory instance – failing health. It’s not sharp enough to be offensive but it’s certainly not funny, and this approach also undermines the fear factor of its septuagenarian boogeymen.
In fact, the whole thing is just a bit awkward, from Rebecca’s pretentious sermonising about the importance of mise-en-scène (unsubtle commentary akin to Shyamalan’s cameo as a world-changing writer in Lady in the Water) to Tyler’s terrible middle-class raps, whose flippant misogyny is not negated by Rebecca’s protestations. These moments were no doubt intended to raise a smile amidst the screams but, just like the jump-cut scares and seemingly requisite twist ending, they inspire nothing more than an eye-roll.
UK Release Date: September 11, 2015
This review was originally published by The List