The author is behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s films. There are several articles on each: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here), Lady in the Water (2006, here and here), The Happening (2008, here, here and here), The Last Airbender (2010, here and here), After Earth (2013, here and here), Split (2016, here, here, here, and here), Glass (2019, here), Old (2021, here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview.
“…now I’m going to try and make smaller movies, based on my experiences with this one. I liked using the muscles I learned and I want to use them a little bit more, but in a smaller way. We used to think that small movies don’t make money anymore and that’s why they don’t get made, but Black Swan, The King’s Speech, both made many millions of dollars. So I think I can make my small, personal movies.”
After being done with wandering the blockbuster wilderness, M. Night Shyamalan resolutely turned his back on the establishment, and reinvented himself with two low-budget films that not only delighted audiences and won new favour with critics, but raked in extraordinary amounts. The Phoenix-like rebirth saw The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) cost 5 and 9 million, and take in 98.5 and 278.5 million worldwide. He followed up with the only slightly more expensive Glass (2019) at 20 million. Although receiving a more mixed reception, it still earned 247 million. A total production cost for the trio of 34 million returned 624 million – a ratio of 18.4. In comparison, the ratio for his four films for Disney from 1999 to 2004 yielded a ratio of 6.4 (total cost 247 million and earnings 1.586 million). It was all from original material too, and in the process he gave Anya Taylor-Joy a revelatory role in Split, a springboard for her to become a major star.
Just briefly: has there ever been other directors who (a) have fallen from a position of glory, (b) gone back to basics in such extreme fashion and (c) with such enormous success? Orson Welles eventually turned to small (and troubled) productions, with impressive artistic but negligible commercial success (and Citizen Kane was never a triumph with audiences in the first place). Peter Bogdanovich fell very hard from favour, with critics and audiences alike, after three beloved films in the early 1970s, and Michael Cimino suffered a similar trajectory a few years later. Both of them hung in there as best they could within the mainstream industry, however, with works that seldom were highly appreciated at the time.
This is the first of two articles about The Visit. It will speak of the uniqueness of the film and its problems, the characters, some self-reflexive aspects, the interview sessions and its use of music, its mise-en-scène, and the play on humour and gravity. There are two enclosures: some minor problems with the film and a brief comparison with other movies involving violence and young teenagers. The second article is about how it fits into the found footage genre, if at all, and its connections to other Shyamalan works. (Please note that some screenshots in these articles have been artificially brightened to increase legibility.)
Here is a list of the film’s common themes and motifs with other Shyamalan works.
I: General remarks
What makes The Visit feel unique
The Visit revolves around a week-long trip by 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to their aged grandparents, affectionately called Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie). The siblings have never met them before, due to a violent, irreparable rift with the children’s mother (Kathryn Hahn) fifteen years ago. The location is a remote farm, with no cellphone coverage, and Becca is determined to film as much as she can for a documentary, hoping for the visit to become a bridge to a broad family reconciliation.
M. Night Shyamalan‘s most audacious film sprung from a confluence of factors. Due to the severe blow to his reputation and industry clout after his two blockbuster debacles, we have a playful director striking out in a totally new direction, having nothing to lose any more, creating the equivalent of a rockabilly record from a practitioner of symphonic rock. As regards casting, lightning struck no less than four times, with basically unknown cinema performers capable of whimsy, irony, farce, and gravity, each mode executed with precision, detail and liveliness. Amidst this variety of tones, the foursome are so riveting that the properly engaged viewer is never troubled by the shifts, just eagerly waiting for the next gift to arrive.
The film can be said to be a continuous study of the cinematic phenomenon of “suspension of disbelief”, making us take the barrage of wacky incidents in our stride, even though, for example, quite a few of the utterly creepy horror situations are also hilariously absurd. In The Visit the mixture of humour and horror finally works for Shyamalan, after several stabs that have not always been assured, most of all in The Happening, as discussed here. In fact, this “double vision” of the same incident being both silly and serious is the most pronounced characteristic of the film. The same goes for the denouement with the children’s mother, which after countless viewings this author is still not sure whether to take as entirely serious, especially since it is followed by an end title scene that seems to undermine the whole film. (The significance of the latter scene is discussed in the second article.)
Furthermore, there is a meta layer dealing with both the cinematic process and our tendency to create narratives to cope with and explain away trauma. This is a recurring Shyamalan subject, but entirely new is an element of vulgarity, with vomiting, excrement and provocative (although discreet) nudity. This too is seen with double vision, however, to both farcical and disgusting effect. As for violence, there is an extremity to one scene in the climax which is seldom to see a 15-year-old involved in, who ends up killing in self-defence in a ferocious, close-quarters struggle. (Please see this enclosure for a brief discussion of why this plot element might be unique.) One hastens to add, however, that both vulgarity and violence are handled with a certain delicacy and indirectness, and not dwelled upon.
The Visit is often (probably mistakenly) labeled a “found footage” film, a genre known otherwise for its dirty look and random, stitched-together feel, but here presented with almost demonstrative visual beauty and technical polish. The stylised dialogue is another, welcome break with the genre and its often tiresome, realism-inducing “everyday people” speech. (Since Shyamalan aimed for a career restart, however, it seems logical to engage with a genre that traditionally has served as a low-budget industry entry point for unknown filmmakers.) There is also a mystery element in this wide-ranging genre mix, as the silly but unnerving behaviour of the elderly becomes increasingly surreal and unpredictable, unfolding as if in a nightly ritual, always after the bedtime of 9:30 pm – in a series of situations that are “things that go bump in the night” taken to extremes.
On top of all this, there is a fairy-tale dimension to the film, with Nana as a sometime cackling witch, and the way she is, apparently, threatening to trap Becca inside the large kitchen oven is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel. Her obsession with food and constant prodding of the children to eat, as if wanting to fatten them up, are a further connection, and the “elixir”, the forgiveness Becca’s mother needs from her own mother to be able to move on with her life, takes the place of the fairy-tale witch’s treasure, won by the children after she is killed and ensuring their future happiness. (The “elixir” term stems from the last one of twelve stages of the hero’s journey in a popular screenwriting textbook by Christopher Vogler.)
Pop Pop’s wood-chopping can be seen as an allusion to the children’s father in the tale, who was a woodcutter, and his activity in that department is shown in a direct cut after Nana, with intense eagerness, has encouraged Becca to eat. A later chapter will describe how Nana (especially) and Pop Pop have created their own fairy-tales as part of their mental illness. The wood-chopping scene is given a deliberately ominous dimension, with Becca at first only hearing some overly vigorous grunting, then seeing an abnormally big pile, before he unsettlingly explodes into view, via a sharp sound effect and a swish-pan, brandishing an axe and speaking in a brusque tone.
On some level Nana and Pop Pop represent darkly humorous exaggerations of children’s dread of the old, but The Visit does not play one-dimensionally on this, neither on fear of the mentally ill. Shyamalan treats them with complexity and they are portrayed as truly lost people, most of all during Becca’s compassionate interview sessions, but also through Pop Pop’s megalomaniacal behaviour in the climax, however murderous. These are very sick people yearning for a life of normality, if even for a week.
The fears against them turn out to be justified, of course, but there is nuance and their actions are not purely evil but helpless products of their illness. There is also a pattern of considerable compassion for other mentally ill people in Shyamalan’s films: the intruder in the opening sequence of The Sixth Sense and especially The Village, where the afflicted person’s madness is “encouraged” by the myths spun by the society around him. In Split and Glass there are tons of compassion for Kevin Wendell Crumb and his many personalities, all of them results of terrible childhood abuse. These are clearly lost people, too. The least nuanced case is the Crazy Lady in The Happening, but she is more like a symbolic embodiment of mankind’s hates and fears. Even she, however, has a hinted-at backstory of tragedy, with a big scar across her throat.
One might ask: is it inconceivable that the children could be able to physically overpower these old people, especially the quite frail Nana? Here the excursion to the town serves a double function: not only to demonstrate Pop Pop’s paranoia but also to establish that he is exceptionally strong, easily overpowering the much younger bystander – Tyler: “He’s as strong as a wrestler!” – and it is Pop Pop who grabs Becca in the basement and shuts her in the bedroom with the murderous Nana. Other indicators are the enormous pile of wood he has chopped and the vigour he applies there. When Tyler breaks his paralysis and overruns him in the climax, Pop Pop is taken by surprise from behind and is incapacitated by hitting his head on a cupboard. (That he is finished off by multiple strikes with the refrigerator door is fitting considering the important role of food in the film,)
To this author’s mind, the only major problem with The Visit is a fleeting false-step moment: Nana screaming “Yahtzee!!!” with cake in her mouth directly towards the camera packs a great punch the first time but comes across as overdone and stale upon further viewings. On the level of plausibility, there are some problems but of less importance since this is in its nature a very wild, zany story. (They are discussed with some other minor negative points in this enclosure.)
II: Characters and themes
Deanna Dunagan, 75 at the time of release, is a veteran actor of the Chicago stage. Her Nana looks like a blend of ZaSu Pitts and Lillian Gish. She is projecting an amazing range of moods, extremely unpredictable, almost as if suffering from a multiple identity disorder. It is notable that Shyamalan would follow up with Split, built around a character with this affliction, especially since the elders of The Visit pretending to be nice grandparents while being something entirely different provides an extra layer of identity issues.
Becca says to Nana that “you’re the star” of her movie so it behooves us to give her some special attention. Her key scenes are covered elsewhere, but here is an additional accounting of Deanna Dunagan‘s range of faces in this film:
Peter McRobbie, 72 at release, has some notable TV work behind him, as well as many but minor film roles, most memorable as the deceased lover’s bitter father in Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) and Howard Hughes’s enforcer in The Hoax (Lasse Hallström, 2006). In The Visit he immediately struck this author as looking like Dennis Hopper, both in eyes and the shape of the head, and is often projecting a similar kind of calm that hides an intense rage. His attack on an innocent bystander during the town excursion is pure Hopper paranoia.
Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould come from Melbourne, Australia, and both had a 2014 American movie behind them. DeJonge starred in The Sisterhood of Night – a title that might have caught Shyamalan’s attention! – directed by Caryn Waechter. Oxenbould appeared in the entertaining Disney movie Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Miguel Arteta, playing much the same precocious, ironic character as in The Visit. DeJonge has played either shy, melancholic girls or cynical, self-absorbed young women, so her vivacious role for Shyamalan is a unique creation. The Australians appeared together again in the well-received babysitter horror movie Better Watch Out (Chris Peckover, 2016) but otherwise their careers have not made the greatest of waves (as of January 2022), although DeJonge has given many fine performances.
Becca and Tyler are part of the long line of memorable children’s roles in Shyamalan. Both are precocious and highly eloquent, like Morgan in Signs and (the young woman) Ivy in The Village, and the eloquence alone can be found in Elijah in Unbreakable and the elders in The Village, along with many characters in Split, Glass and Old. (Not unsurprisingly, the director is fond of words: this recent interview reveals how he fills spare time with a vocabulary app to learn new ones.) One of the film’s conceits is that they are both people of considerable virtuosity and accomplishment: most of all in their way with words, but Becca is also well versed in filmmaking, at least in the theory of it, and Tyler at least projects a proficiency as a rapper. (It is notable that one of the director’s three daughters, Ishana Shymalan, born in 1999 and at Becca’s age, later began a film career – like the bedtime stories told to his children led to Lady in the Water, The Visit seems to be another case of familial inspiration.)
Becca is well-meaning but overbearing, however in a disarming and winning way. She prides herself on accuracy and attention to detail – Tyler’s “I’m on the text with two separate girls” is typically met with the nit-picking “it’s important you put the word ‘separate’ in there, in case we thought they were conjoined twins” – and her perfectly formed sentences are peppered with unusual vocabulary enunciated with impeccable crispness. Here is a sample:
All through the film, there is such a freshness, invention and caprice to the acting and dialogue, for example when Becca says before the hide-and-seek game: “you better hide, my ethnically confused friend”, suddenly playing on the fact that rap music is traditionally the domain of African-Americans, or when she is supposed to count to five seconds, since she is obsessed with accuracy, she uses the “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” method. Her wide variety of expressions when addressing the camera is a sight for sore eyes. What might have come across as intolerable affect is just very charming in her hands.
Becca’s earnest, lecturing eagerness and absolute self-assurance are exaggerated in a perfectly calibrated manner to produce a layer of humour. For example, DeJonge manages to get a lot of funny mileage out of spouting technical film terms as if her character is totally sincere, but at the same time undercutting this by an actorly layer, creating a distancing, “performed” irony. Apart from some serious intermezzos, this strategy permeates her entire character (and to some extent Tyler’s too): it is as if her presence is just a role she is playing, her monologues for the camera both earnest and with mock solemnity. (We should also remember that she is filming herself the whole time so she might to some extent be playing up to the camera.)
Both siblings seem very intelligent, but Becca has social intelligence too, which manifests itself in the flexibility of approach towards Nana during the interview, and in the warmth towards Pop Pop when he is confused and heading for the imagined costume party. There is also a touching scene where she comforts Tyler when he insists that his hands have been sullied by germs, whining as if he were an eight-year-old again. On the other hand, her empathy makes her blind to the threatening signs from the elderly, constantly explaining away their increasingly odd behaviour to Tyler.
The media-savvy Tyler is playful, in a precocious but also self-deprecating manner, and while he will allow his sister to lead, he is constantly teasing her attempts to direct him for the film and mocking her prideful use of film-technical terms, but in a charming, non-hurtful way. Thus his anger at her at a later stage becomes striking, revealing simmering resentment. His character is allowed way more overt humour, often horsing around. This author in fact had big problems with Tyler during the first viewing (at a near-empty press screening); his jocular nature came across as forced and annoying, in addition especially his rapping was cringeworthy. After reading comments on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards about the film and realising how kids at his own age adored him – and getting confirmation through the gales of laughter at the next, public screening – his appeal was suddenly obvious. Who says one cannot be taught about movies by thirteen-year-olds!
Despite the virtuosity of Dunagan, Oxenbould is arguably the film’s biggest asset. Even the obviousness of the shit joke as he discovers the shocking secret of the shed becomes gold and a moving affirmation of the human humorous condition. He is good-looking too, in an untraditional way with his cherubic, mischievous face, as well as sporting a high brow and wavy hair, with a small mouth often forming a rebellious, mocking smirk. His rap “stage name” is T-Diamond Stylus, which is recognised by Becca, who often calls him T, and even T-Diamond (once, when she is really upset, having just come across a vomiting Nana).
Both Becca and Tyler are wearing masks, however, a condition that is revealed during their interviews. Especially Oxenbould is good at playing denial, with his carefully slick, mask-like face at the start of his session. Their everything-is-fine, nothing-too-see-here, I’m-totally-unaffected attitudes hide great issues with self-esteem, as a result of the disappointment over their father leaving the family five years ago.
Stories, fears and fantasies
“I know a story. It’s about water. There is a pond that has little creatures in it. These creatures are from another planet but no one realizes it. These creatures spit into the water all day long. Their spit can make you sleep, but not die. When people go underwater in the pond, they go into a deep sleep. A really beautiful sleep. The creatures from another planet have many people at the bottom of the pond, storing them up. They are going to take them back to their planet of Sinmorfitellia one day. That’s just a made-up story. It’s not real.”
Nana and Pop Pop are in reality two escapees from a mental institution, named Claire and Mitchel, who have killed the real grandparents, their counselors, in order to take their place. Pop Pop explains: “They kept telling us you were so great. How you’re gonna visit, how you’re gonna be a family. That was a bad thing they did. They knew Claire had put her two children in those suitcases in the pond. She deserved this week as a grandma.” And entrapped in his solipsistic worldview, he asks the terrified Becca: “Wasn’t it a perfect week? I promised her it would be.” Becca and Tyler are particularly vulnerable to the deception because they have no experience with elderly people since their mother has severed the connection.
In order to cope with their past trauma, the elders have erected elaborate fantasies, most of all Nana. To rationalise away the fact that she killed her children, she must pretend that they are not dead, just in a deep sleep and destined for an afterlife. She tells the above story during the interview with Becca, a highlight of the film and a tour de force from Dunagan, voice quivering with heartbreak, yearning and an urge to be understood, her story marked by a childlike poetry. Its simplicity as well as connection to water and fantastical creatures is reminiscent of the bedtime story in Lady in the Water. Before Becca changes the subject, she follows up with the no less childlike “and the creatures have antennas, but they are invisible antennas”.
Nana and Pop Pop now intend to repeat history: her two children will be followed by her two “grandchildren” and “the only way to Sinmorfitellia from here is through the well”. This explains the situation the previous day where Nana is standing like transfixed, staring down into an old, unused well. Her claim just before about having seen “a family of foxes” seems to tie into all this familial business, and her childlike outlook on the world is further reflected in the rocking chair scene, where she explains her monotonous, mechanically joyless laughter with: “You have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in a cave.”
When Becca tries to approach the subject of the family rift, merely the mention of a daughter, Becca’s mother, seems to conjure up an unbearable association to Nana’s real, dead children. She almost suffers a nervous breakdown in the first, aborted interview and during the second one, Becca has to pretend that her mother’s past experience is just another story, so that Nana can at all talk about such a situation. In a moving, heartfelt moment, if she was the mother in that story, she would forgive the daughter, she says.
Nana’s fantasy rewrite of her personal tragedy is met by Becca’s fictionalisation of the rift, and this is all laid on top of Nana and Pop Pop’s masquerade as the kids’ loving, doting grandparents. Their eagerness to fill these roles is touching and evidenced in several situations, and their need for a real family comes across as almost as urgent as the child hero of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) who wants to be a real boy, with a family.
The elders often speak about the situation directly as role-playing. After Tyler has discovered the used diapers Pop Pop has hidden in the shed, Nana says: “You must be disappointed in your grandparents. I’m sorry we ruined things. We’re really trying. I’ll make you some bread pudding.” After having explained Nana’s erratic nocturnal activities as sundowning, Pop Pop is full of remorse: “I’m sorry about this – you must not be happy now” and even more after he has realised his mistake about going to a costume party: “What a bunch of confused old fools your grandparents turned out to be”. On Friday night when the end is nigh, he is determined to have an appropriate climax: “We should play a board game! Families play board games.” And when he arrives with the dice: “Let’s make it a perfect family night.”
That last night their masks are slipping, however. What makes the situation especially sinister is the fact that the elders are by now almost toying with the children, beginning to be cavalier about keeping up appearances. During the Yahtzee game, the pretence is almost gone, as they start bickering, like they apparently used to do in the canteen at the mental institution. But there is more role-building, because Pop Pop has the need to pretend to be a Yahtzee Master. The children are also deceptive, trying not to let on that they have discovered that the elders are impostors. So role playing is pervasive, but the double vision is maintained: while the situation is desperate, the behaviour of all four participants is also drawn as comical – for example, the elders play the board game with infantile impatience and Tyler plays the role of unsuspecting child hilariously badly.
During the whole evening Nana and Pop Pop are very agitated, not necessarily with lust for murder, but because these are their last hours being alive. They have planned to kill the children and themselves the whole time and, possibly, also to burn down the house, with the cans of petrol that Becca spots in the basement.
Pop Pop is not subjected to a detailed backstory, but seems to have been fired from his factory job and later shunned due to talking about his delusional experiences during the night shift, claiming to have seen a “white thing running around”. In the cellar with Becca he is as sure as ever: “The white thing with yellow eyes is real. It waits for us. I saw it out in the field. It was laughing at us.” He also has a special relationship with Tyler, telling the boy, who is paralysed with fear, that “you have a magic spell on you” and following up with “we can all be saved tonight – your magic spell will be lifted”. Does the spell refer to the boy’s state of being paralysed with fear here and now, or with his underlying trauma that has cast a shadow over his life? Anyway, he smears the boy’s face with excrement from his diaper, as if that will do the trick, since the boy has a fear of germs. He also confesses to never having liked Tyler, so the act is also in revenge for Tyler having earlier harassed him when Pop Pop went to hide his “accidents” in the shed.
Although less deeply, Becca and Tyler are traumatised too, by being left by their father five years ago – broken families are a recurring Shyamalan theme – and subsequently Tyler developed his irrational dread of germs and Becca her fear of mirrors. When Becca comforts Tyler about the germs he imagines to be on his hands on Thursday night, it is as if he has regressed to the age when his father left. Tyler also suffered another intolerable trauma as an eight-year-old, when he miserably failed during a football game, getting paralysed in front of a large audience, and to the great disappointment, he feels, of his father. The fact that the parent never expressed any anger, nor even talked about it, somehow made it worse. During the climax, like Becca overcomes her fear of mirrors, he struggles out of the same state of paralysis, but, as part of the double vision approach, this happens in a wholly over-the-top manner, with blunt violence and lunatic ravings, provoking laughter in us as much as emotional catharsis.
As probable compensation for his trauma, Tyler is projecting the narrative that he is a gifted rap artist and also irresistible to girls – although the latter might be (mostly?) a self-deprecating joke – and it is tempting to ascribe Becca’s trumpeting of her sophisticated film knowledge and artistic ambition to her own coping mechanism. Becca is also promoting, even clinging to, the story that the exceedingly odd behaviour of their “grandparents” is simply due to their advanced age, and cannot be anything else than completely harmless. This self-reflexive device with characters interpreting or trying to make sense of the story as it is unfolding, through discussions of competing possible narratives, has been prominently used by Shyamalan also in Lady in the Water, The Happening and Old, as well as in Glass, where the superbeings are convinced about having powers while the psychiatrist insists they are delusional. In Unbreakable there is a similar tug of war, with Elijah adamant that David has powers, while the latter is in denial.
Becca aims to make the story of their visit into a documentary, even to the extent of hewing closely to advice about the “hero’s journey” from the aforementioned screenwriting manual, and Tyler’s rap performance, itself embedded in Becca’s documentary, during the end titles is re-telling the whole adventure in rap terms, turning their real experiences into a story, processing the trauma. Becca is even speaking of her own mother as a “classic narrative character”. On the whole, there is a complex web of trauma and stories connected to all five main characters, a parallel to how we all use stories to understand and come to terms with the world.
We also find in The Visit a struggle of competing narratives and even a fight for the director’s chair. During one of her sundowning excursions, Nana takes the camera meant to surveil her upstairs and puts it on the floor, thus shooting her own knife-wielding approach to the children’s bedroom door. In the climax, Pop Pop takes the camera into his own hands to address it with his highly memorable, insane credo, and even lifts it up to better capture his smearing of Tyler’s face with diaper content. During the last night, Becca and Tyler attempt to escape under the excuse of going outside to shoot nighttime exteriors, but Nana hijacks the shooting schedule, insists “do this first”, wanting Becca to do the creepy task of cleaning the oven. All through the week, the elders are like directors seeking to stage a normal life and a perfect visit, and a perfect last evening.
Finally, there is a powerful meta moment as Becca employs precisely her camera as an instrument of liberation, using it as a club to break the lock so she can escape from the room. The kids watching their footage of Nana with her knife also produces a meta shiver since it looks exactly like a horror movie, an otherwise source of entertainment for them. Other self-reflexive material includes Tyler trying out several intonations of his dramatic speculation that there might be “dead bodies” in the shed – no, they are actually in the basement, Tyler! – and his mock reporter tone outside his mother’s old school. Later we will go into the fun the film is having with lofty cinematic terms, and we have already talked about the children’s role-playing acting styles and use of masks to hide traumas. And in the second article we will see that The Visit is also commenting upon the ingredients of the found footage genre.
All five principal characters of The Visit are interviewed. The kids’ mother is the least involved in the story’s main body, but this is compensated by her having two interviews, bookending the film, periods when she is dominating the story. Her first session has the added function of conveying exposition about the past and the family situation, the documentary approach making the infodump appear natural.
It is also telling that Becca’s first line in the film comes as an unseen director’s impersonal instruction, to the mother. Her last line in the film, kicking off the second interview, is very different: “Mom, honestly, you know you don’t have to do this.” For during this session she is rejecting her distance, entering the shot and even embracing her mother on-camera. She is also zooming slowly in, like Tyler did to herself in her own interview (but more crassly, without feeling). Before the embrace, in a touch of directorial foresight, Becca adjusts the framing slightly to make better room for herself. The embrace is the moment they become adults – the mother too, since she has been painted as almost exaggeratedly youthful and lively.
The scene seems entirely serious, but this author has never been able to fully embrace it as such. The resolution and the message from the mother about “don’t hold on to anger” seem a bit facile and on-the-nose, and the accompanying piano music a little simplistic. There is a metaphor, however, because in the embrace she is holding on to her daughter instead, and, not least, her advice is immediately acted upon, since it turns out Becca has included the old footage of her father after all. In the second article we are going to discuss how seriously the entire film ought to be taken, and to what extent Tyler’s end title rap performance might signal that The Visit is a pseudo-documentary and everything we have seen was simply staged.
When the children interview each other, it happens in almost consecutive scenes – fittingly, in-between there is the dredging of the well, as if murky memories are plumbed along with the bucket of dirty water – and there is a striking similarity between the backgrounds, with the door and the road as some kind of exit signal, or symbol of the past or future:
After an evasive start with his face a demonstratively brave mask, Tyler tells the story about freezing up during the football game, his precocious facade being dropped, and for the first time we see a core of gravity behind all the facetiousness. During Becca’s interview, Tyler apparently wants to pay her back for her prodding and general besserwisser tone – building on the night before, which saw the first flare of temper between them when Tyler gets very bitter about Becca’s refusal to set up the surveillance camera – so his questioning becomes pointed and confrontational. Soon Becca is shaken, especially when her reluctance to look at herself in mirrors is relentlessly brought up. Becca’s visible unhappiness is contrasted with the way she clings to a studiously technical language, as she asks “are you changing the focal length of the lens”, another sign that her filmmaking activity is a method to gain control over the world and her emotions. Tyler brazenly lies and says no.
It is during Pop Pop’s interview that he speaks of losing his job at the factory, seeing “the white thing” and not being believed. While his appearance is recorded with one camera and in a single, long take, Nana is awarded a much more elaborate session, with two cameras (and mounted on tripods, for the first time in the film). This enables a shot/reverse shot cutting between Nana and Becca, strengthening the emotional rapport that is achieved and covering Becca’s strong emotional response too. By the way, Nana almost reaches the mother’s level, clocking up one and half interview, because there was an earlier session that had to be abandoned, due to the anxiety attack triggered by the question about what happened when “her” daughter left.
There are also some brief confessionals directed towards the camera. Tyler is complaining after Becca has forbidden him to set up the spy camera, as if in a reality TV-like confessional, precisely a type of show they discussed in the scene before. Later, following her own interview, Becca has some comments to make too, a tearful outburst about her father only giving her a card when he left (she probably means an impersonal business card with contact information).
It is however Pop Pop who takes the cake in the confessional department, in one of the film’s most memorable moments, announcing his brilliantly written credo directly to the camera during the climax, with beatific certainty. There is no holding back now, instead it is a lunatic standing there, with great use of pauses for emphasis: “You are blind. You are blind. I am the exposer. I am a seer. I see the veiny…deformed…face of the world.”
Young versus old music
“It was old age having a go at youth,” says the hero in a resigned voice-over as he is attacked by a bunch of homeless people in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). This springs to mind during one of the most chilling moments of the film, after the children have discovered the visitor from earlier in the day now hanged in a tree, and Pop Pop calmly shuts the door, matter-of-factly announcing the board game team selections: “it’s young versus old.”
The generation gaps are often reflected in the music. The categories of young and old brilliantly collide during the end titles, where the exuberant hip hop tune “Stand Tall” by WarChild – this is also heard in the background in the clip where Tyler has filmed himself shirtless – in a priceless touch is succeeded by grandparentsy old-fashioned music: “18 morceaux, Op. 72, No. 2. Berceuse” by Tchaikovsky, arranged for theremin and piano, performed by Clara Rockmore and Nadia Reisenberg, with the theremin sounding like a yammering human voice. This ludicrous music in its turn clashes with studiously serious, foggy exterior shots with exquisite irony. Yet another collision occurs in the first interior scene at the farm where Nana is a confused but impressed audience for Tyler, who is effortlessly rising to the occasion, having been challenged to rap on “pineapple upside-down cake”. Tyler is touchingly happy for her praise, gratified by the validation even though she has not the faintest idea about the genre.
“Old-timer” music of bygone eras plays an important role throughout the film. The “Mocking Bird Yodel” in the background takes Nana’s rocking chair scene to further insane, absurd heights. Two arias by Enrico Caruso are heard during the climax where Pop Pop reigns supreme in the kitchen: “Non t’amo più” by Denza and “L’Elisir d’amore, Act 2: Una furtiva lagrima” by Donizetti. The latter title plays on the “elixir” that Becca wants for her mother. This intermezzo is goofing around with Kubrickian notions of inappropriate music, as this high-cultured, solemn music here forms the backdrop to a scene of raw physical and psychological violence. It also plays on the film cliché of culturally refined villains.
The laid-back soul tune “Generation” performed by East Coast Connection is played during the Yahtzee game, the joyful music yet another eccentric counterpoint, to a scene of extreme tension. When Nana’s sundowning has frozen her into an awkward standing position, the record has finished and the gramophone stylus is trapped in a loop of monotonous, ticking noises, as if in a commentary to her stasis and the fact that her life will soon be played out.
Also the in-between generation is represented musically: Mom’s favourite music, “Possession” by Harry Revel, performed by Lex Baxter and orchestra, is used ironically too, breaking out in the kitchen after the children have incapacitated Pop Pop. It starts with the chorus at 1:38, the vocal harmonies blending in ghostly fashion with Tyler’s shouted ravings, to dramatic but also comic effect, very over-the-top – once again the double vision approach. The fact that it is their mother’s favourite music can be said to signal that she is on her way. In fact, at this very moment she is just about to arrive at the farm, and far away police car sirens can be heard wailing before the song, as if foreshadowing it. Becca had already singled out the piece for use in the documentary, citing it as “ironic scoring” and stating that “it’s so over the top, it’ll be her presence in the documentary” – all of this turns out to be prescient. (It is also on in the car when she drives the kids to the station.)
In addition to Mom’s favourite and the end titles score, the only other non-diegetic music is the piano during the mother’s second interview, which continues over the old footage of the now-absent father with the kids, the music thus reuniting the whole family, but now in a more resolved and emotional tone. This is the only music especially composed for The Visit, by Paul Cantelon. (The film has no composer credit; this item is found under “music department”.)
The last music credit to account for is the rock tune “The Three Wisemen“, performed by Sat. Nite Duets, which is heard, rather faintly, in the background of the “hairy chest competition” on the cruise ship while the kids are Skyping with their mother.
This chapter rounds up items more or less related to this notoriously hard-to-define film term without a natural fit into other discussions over these two articles. The analysis will now tend to go down to a more fine-grained level.
One of the film’s many chilling scenes, masterfully executed, describes how Nana invites Becca to clean the insides of a large oven by crawling into it. We have already seen enough of Nana’s escalating, crazy antics during the nights to start being apprehensive that it could spill over into daytime. The scene is marked by Nana’s subtly odd behaviour.
IV: Comedy and tragedy
Irony and humour
Three times the children seek explanations from Nana or Pop Pop about the other grandparent’s outlandish behaviour. The retorts that they should just overlook it because it is due to ailments the elderly cannot help remind this author of Monty Python‘s “Buying a Bed” sketch (audio here) where the explanations (also there thrice) always end with a soothing “otherwise he’s perfectly all right”.
The idea sounds idiotic on paper but arguably the most successful humorous aspect of The Visit is Tyler’s decision to stop cursing and instead use the names of female pop singers, because “it would sound better”. Thus employed are the following:
- Shakira, although just as an example, when announcing the idea to Becca
- Sarah McLachlan, outside after having discovered the shit in the shed, although he forgets himself at first with a “God damn it!”
- Carrie Underwood, muttered under his breath when he is ignored after having brought up with his mother the fact that Nana was chasing them under the house
- most exquisite of all: a discreet but deeply felt Katy Perry, when Nana is going off the rails, wolfing down cake during the board game
- an exuberant Shania Twain finalises his end-titles rap
A rich source of (meta-)humour is Becca’s self-satisfied but charming habit of expounding upon cinematic terms. This is justified by the plot since these educational items are meant for Tyler, who is assigned a role as some kind of assistant director, using their second camera.
The children amusingly reveal their naivety both about old people, that they might buy this as plausible behaviour from playing children, and that rural children, in contrast to themselves as sophisticated participants in the internet age, might get anything out of such a laughably simple game as throwing a ball in the air and catch it. Not to speak of the lack of plausibility that they, who so far have been behaving like very modern children, suddenly should relish such a simple pastime.
Their behaviour here is part of a funny pattern of highly unconvincing behaving-as-if-nothing’s-wrong. Later that evening, when Becca tries to execute a get-away-plan by pretending to go outside to film exterior night shots, Tyler addresses her as “sister”, which he never otherwise does. During the board game he provides more of this:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) provides an excellent example of a scene both horrific and absurdly humorous, where an extremely enfeebled, elderly member of the murderous family is supposed to kill the heroine with a hammer but is so weak that he is losing the weapon or misses the goal multiple times.
As we have seen, this double vision, with levity and gravity existing side by side, is prevalent in The Visit. (This is a good Youtube video exploring its mixture of horror and comedy.) A good example is the board game scene with the elders’ childish bickering and wayward high spirits, hilarious to watch, while the children have to endure this with the knowledge that they are murderers, and out to kill them too. Nana’s “you have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in a cave” could be said to be emblematic for the film, and the scene that produces this statement fittingly starts out as farce and ends with tragedy. It is masterfully staged, the yodeling and Nana’s exhilarated laughter first sets a tone of crazed merriment, but as we get closer it dawns on us, with an icy feeling, that she is not at all laughing at a TV show like Becca thinks, but is staring straight into the wall, and that the laugh is entirely joyless, a mechanical kind of hysteria. When Becca interrupts her she resolutely goes for a kind-of-suicide attempt of self-strangulation.
When Becca then goes to find Pop Pop, he sits with a shotgun in his mouth, and his startled reaction, helpless attempt to explain it away (“I was just cleaning it, really”), the promptness of Becca’s new discovery, and the repetitive nature of this wave, as if Becca cannot look anywhere without spotting a suicidal person – the sum of all this is guffaw-inducing, even though the underlying material is dark as the abyss. Earlier on this joyless day, we saw Nana standing at the bottom of the stairs like a statue, so it seems that the elders are now overcome with despair, and on the verge of simply committing suicide, without going through with the plan of killing the children. (If Becca had stumbled upon Pop Pop just a few seconds later, would she had been spared the mortal drama the next evening?)
Even the horrific sight of the hanged Stacey as the kids open the door trying to escape is not only brilliant but kind of funny. It has to do with the utter convenience that the sight should strike them not only immediately but also with a perfect line of sight towards the door, and the idea that by this stage of the film, there is something horrible around every corner. (From a realistic point-of-view to, the event is laughable: if the elders wanted to kill her, why not hide her instead of parading her from a tree? Or are they trying to fake a suicide for this former drug addict? Why would that be necessary since everyone is going to die tonight anyway? And when exactly did they place her up in the tree – she arrived in broad daylight and they could hardly have hung her for the kids to see at any time.)
There are islands of undiluted seriousness, however. The emotionally affecting ones have already been discussed among the interview sessions. The outright horror scenes have little humour, and all the fun in the rest of the film can be said to be misdirection to make the horror more stark, in contrast.
Most of the pure horror comes late in the film, with the notable exception of the chase scene under the house. This is a masterful exercise in pure, primal, clawing terror, all the more because it explodes without warning, on the heels of the kids bantering and being exhilarated by the hide-and-seek game they are going to re-enact from their mother’s youth. This author can still remember the electrifying sense of confusion over the presence of some kind of entity in there with them, a crawling thing suddenly materialising out of nowhere inside the labyrinth – scenes of panic is a recurring thing with Shyamalan – even though on later viewings it is clear that it is Nana, because we even hear her speak a few words, as well as clucking with laughter. The carefully crafted confusion and the impossibility that this frail old lady, and at this point portrayed as a kind grandmother, would ever do such a mad thing, nevertheless precludes any recognition at first viewing.
Not so pure since they are also absurd, the four nightly scenes of sundowning are outstandingly effective horror set pieces, very often with impactful use of sound: (1) the suddenness of Nana’s vomiting, disgustingly right there on he floor, and the awful sounds she is making, (2) the unfathomable clawing on the other side of the door, (3) the crazily lopsided stance of her running, first signalled by the stomping sounds of feet before they open the door and then accompanied by fearsome growling, and (4) the jump scare, indestructible however many times one sees the film, when she suddenly ducks up in front of the surveillance camera, with a crazy mask of a face and a blood-curdling growl. (There is another, pretty indestructible jump scare when Becca is frightening Tyler by bursting out of a slightly ajar door and into the living room, and the moment when the sundowning Nana is suddenly running across the open bedroom door is pretty scary too.)
Tyler is jokingly calling Nana a werewolf and indeed she seems, to a certain extent, to emulate such a behaviour when sundowning. (Or a grizzly bear, her favourite animal, as stated in the aborted interview?) That is why she is growling during the jump scare, why she claws on the walls, and why after all the running and growling, she ends the third night by crawling on all fours towards the bedroom door. (Her crawling during the hide-and-seek scene also plays into this.) During the climax there is more on-all-fours business, and in the final, close-quarters battle, she growls and snarls when throwing herself at Becca, and seems to try to bite the girl in the throat.
The climactic moments here are yet another instance of cinema demonstrating how ordinary people can become very violent if their survival is threatened. Becca’s struggle with Nana is at close quarters in the extreme, also for the viewer who is only allowed an imperfect view, in part of the frame. It is over very fast but quite dense in meaning, with implications not so easily grasped due to the immediate terror of the experience, and the darkness. (The light switch does not seem to work, which gives Becca an impetus to keep on filming even when her life is at stake, the only light source.)
This ends the first article about The Visit. The second one will investigate how it is dealing with and commenting upon the various challenges and conceits of the found footage genre and how it is sneaking in artificial elements of a sometimes highly technical nature. Finally, it will round up a range of references and connections to the other films of M. Night Shyamalan.
Enclosure I: Minor problems
On the level of plausibility, there are some problems but of less importance since this is in its nature a very wild, zany story.
- It seems a bit strange that it should be so impossible for the mother to raise the police on a more general basis, even though she is unable to get through to the local office. (The answering machine says that it only has one officer.) Even odder is the fact that the farm is without cellphone reception, since it is not more remote than people are three times stopping by to inquire about the real grandparents. These are perfectly normal contrivances in a suspense story, however.
- If he has escaped from the psychiatric hospital, how can Pop Pop take the chance on driving into town with the kids, even driving by it? Is this why he is so nervous about being watched, more than general paranoia? This is a difficult one. The trip happens in the middle of the day on a weekday. It is very few people around, however – maybe this is a very quiet place?
- Why is there not a big search for the escapees? Nana is a murderer, although it must be decades ago. Since the real grandparents were their counselors and especially since they have gone missing themselves, their farm ought to be an obvious place to search. Maybe this one-officer town (the fictitious Masonville, Pennsylvania) is a really badly run place?
- How could the grandparents have been lying dead for at least a week without the smell getting noticeable? The weather is clearly thawing to the point of a massive rain on the last day – signalled by the thunder earlier in the evening – but perhaps the basement will still keep things cold enough? The bodies do not appear to be recently killed, so it is not like they have been imprisoned, bound and gagged, down there. There are also flies inside the shed with the used diapers. Maybe it has got warm enough, with bright sunshine, that they would have been awakened? (This seems to be possible.) Most likely this is just a film convention, a way to indicate smell by using sound.
- As already discussed, the way Stacey was killed and hanged does not make much sense, but it is a terrific turn. We should not care.
On a finer grain, given the extremely threatening behaviour on Thursday night with Nana brandishing a big knife, craving access to their bedroom, the children are intent on cutting their visit short, not staying until Saturday and keeping their distance on Friday. What seems a bit odd is the fact that Becca still insists on going through with the interviews. Admittedly, this is before they have discovered that the elders are impostors, plus they mostly seem dangerous at night, and Becca still lacks the “elixir” for her mother. Perhaps there still might have been some rearranging of the sequence of events, because when the siblings look at the footage afterwards, they appear to be quite calm. It also seems odd and a bit repetitive that they are out in the yard, “playing”, as many as three times, in-between the sessions.
The grandparents most likely went missing sometime between Tuesday and Thursday the previous week, their counseling days. They did not turn up on Thursday, so it means that the impostors have only reigned supreme at the farm for a few days. The pile of diapers in the shed seen on Tuesday seems much too large, however, for it to be accumulated over such a short time.
There is also a tiny thing in the sound mix: the clicking noise from the gramophone stylus starts before the record has stopped playing.
Enclosure II: Young violence
The set-up of The Visit seems to be very unusual: main protagonists, children as young as 15 and 13, are left alone without help from any adults in an ordinary real-life setting and they have to kill in brutally violent scenes to save their lives, and they kill ordinary human beings not monsters or aliens.
One has children in danger in many films, in directly life-threatening circumstances, like in Witness (1985), Mercury Rising (1998) and White House Down (2013), but there are almost always adults around as potential saviours, and the kids do not have to resort to violence themselves.
A classic like Lord of the Flies (1993) does not qualify since the kids (even younger here) do not kill to survive (and it is not the heroes who kill). The subgenre of Battle Royale (2000) and Hunger Games (2012), plus the latter’s copycats, fall outside as well, since the future settings and circumstances are extraordinary.
An interesting case is Treasure Island (1950 and many more, the 1990 one being important) where the boy shoots and kills a pirate who has chased him up into the ship’s rigging after the boy has been wounded himself, but one feels the exotic boys’ adventure setting is a disqualifier.
Horror movies with child menaces like The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976) or Children of the Corn (1984) do not count since the children are very seldom the main protagonists and do not always kill to survive.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) tries to justify the children’s massacre of an entire island of adults with a society that causes massive suffering for children through wars, so it is kind of a self-defence, but rather too indirect. Also, they are not the protagonists.
Maybe Cloak & Dagger (1984) and its predecessor The Window (1949) come closest. The kids kill the adult that threatens their lives but the scenes are not particularly violent. And in the former case, the hero has an imagined mentor, an adult, that urges him to shoot. That scene can be watched here.
The Clovehitch Killer (2018) is a good try, because the kids are definitely in mortal danger. There is a society around them, however, and the killing finally happens execution-style, not in self-defence.