The Visit: What a Comic Relief, by Tyler Smith
What is the point of comic relief? Most would say that it is simply to break the tension in stressful films. These could be dramas, horror, suspense; pretty much anything that one wouldn’t immediately associate with comedy. This is the generally understood purpose of comic relief, but it can also serve a much more valuable function. Humor, in a movie or even in life, can be used to ingratiate oneself to an audience. Like the guy in high school who manages to avoid getting beaten up because he’s able to make people laugh. Humor can just get people on your side.
And after years of critical and commercial flops, M. Night Shyamalan needed people to be on his side. Thankfully, with The Visit, a found footage horror movie with more than its share of humor, he finally got me back on his side.
The story of two young children visiting their grandparents for the first time and discovering that all may not be well with Nana and Pop Pop, The Visit contains all the ingredients necessary for an old school effective Shyamalan film. The character arcs, the unhealed emotional wounds, the creeping dread, and the eventual plot twist. And, if it were all played straight, it probably would have be too much. It would have been obvious how hard Shyamalan is trying to get back in our good graces, and we probably would reject it. As it is, though, through humor and a strong sense of self awareness, Shyamalan manages to make his standard tropes feel fresh and fun.
A lot of credit is due to the actors. Balancing bewilderment and goofiness can be tough to pull off, but all of the actors work together to create a consistent fabric of good-natured fear. Whether it’s Pop Pop suddenly getting caught with a shotgun in his mouth or Nana laughing at nothing, the creepiness manages to come through even as we laugh incredulously. That combined with the attitudes of the children- the young boy in particular- make this a film that could easily considered as much a comedy as a horror film.
Thankfully, neither win out and a delicate balance is struck, allowing the film to be an emotional roller coaster, in which our suspicions are raised and then reassured over and over again. It gets so that we don’t even realize how dangerous the situation is until we’re right in the middle of it. In many ways, it really puts us through the emotional ringer, maybe even more so than the more serious horror movies out there. That perhaps more than anything is what made M. Night Shyamalan such an effective filmmaker. Every bit of tension and fear in his films- the good ones, anyway- would first feel like an event before inevitably feeling like the overwhelming, unrelenting norm. As the true threat would come into focus, the inescapability would wash over us and the real terror would set in.
Shyamalan’s sense of visual style remains intact, as well. Despite the film being a found footage movie- a genre that I keep convincing myself is going to go away- Shyamalan manages to create some iconic images not usually associated with the style. And, ever the film fan, he incorporates some imagery from old Hollywood as a way of trading on our expectations. As Nana, Deanna Dunagan looks so much like Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter that I immediately felt comforted and reassured. Similarly, as the kids slowly approach Nana sitting in a chair facing the wall, I couldn’t help but think of Mrs. Bates. There are many others, but I’ll go ahead and let the perverse combination of Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Bates sink in. That’s the film we’re dealing with, and it’s as marvelous as it sounds.
While it is probably too early to declare M. Night Shyamalan as “back!”, I can’t deny that I felt downright nostalgic as I was watching it. Had this film come out a year or two after Signs, it would not have been out of place. The claustrophobia, the precocious children, the looming threats. They’re all there, making us wonder where they’ve been all this time. And perhaps that’s part of the laughter, as well. Maybe we’re laughing because we once again feel like we’re in capable hands again. It is the laughter of familiarity and relief. And I hope it doesn’t go away again.