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  • Looking in on The Visit movie

    18th October, 2015

    A few weeks ago my parents saw The Visit film. They thought it would be just a nice movie about grandkid/grandparent visits. They got a surprise. I suppose the blood on the poster looks like something less sinister, strawberry jam, maybe. We went along to see it later, to understand just how much it would have varied from their expectations.

    Don’t continue reading this if you still want to watch it! (although, Mr Sonja says that everyone has seen it now and we are completely off trend). And what I have to say might put you off anyway.

    The Visit movie ticket with cross-stitch tree

    Embroidered woodlands

    Unfortunately The Visit was a little bit ruined for me as someone commented on the youtube trailer: “Those aren’t their grandparents, they killed the real ones and hid them in the basement. Spoiler alert.” (argh you put spoiler alert at the wrong end of the sentence and ruined my experience! I think if a movie is being so heavily promoted on youtube, that the front-up spoiler comments should at least be managed). Like Brent McKnight, I assumed that there would be some sort of body-swapping or possession – I guess body-swapping did happen in a sense, though. I also wondered if there was a cult in the mix, given the description on the official website“Once the children discover that the elderly couple is involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home are growing smaller every day.”

    I missed quite a few parts of the movie as, like at Melissa King’s screening, there were some very disruptive movie-goers talking throughout the film with phrases such as “What the-!” and “Don’t go in there!”. I was really hoping they might walk out, and if I’d sat above them (rather than the row below), I would have touched their shoulders at a jump-moments to help them understand the impact you can have on someone’s viewing experience.

    Becca and Tyler’s visit to Nanna and Pop-pop was bound to be unpredictable as a week-long hazing of “getting to know each other”. At one point, Tyler says “I hope things don’t get any more awkward, because I’m at my limit.” That was my feeling throughout, even though I love critically panned movies. Glimpses of the driveway on the way to “Grandma’s  house in the woods” was reminiscent of the scenic twists and turns of Manderley’s driveway in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (very apt given they both feature characters with the same name). The foreboding underscore of the whole film – what lies beneath – was offset by the meant-to-be-comedic elements such as the expansive vocabulary of the children (eerily similar to the teenagers in Dawson’s Creek). The tension of the red chapter markers as a count-down to the finish mimicked Sophie Calle’s count-down of “days until unhappiness” in her work of art, Exquisite Pain.

    The Visit movie with the well

    Well, well

    Of M. Night’s films, the only other two I’ve seen are The Sixth Sense (another movie beginning with stopword -the) and Lady in the water. Perhaps because of my viewing of Lady in the water, I really thought that The Visit had a shared, consistent theme – water. Water featured as the rising damp that would have created the faux “toxic mould” in the basement (a Bluebeard-like forbidden room), the story of sleeping underwater, aliens spitting into a lake, Nanna’s fascination with the well, her history of drowning her children and the rainy weather in the final scenes. If there was a lake beneath the house, that could be why the bodies of the actual grandparents were placed in the basement, for a “deep, really beautiful sleep” (strong burial, ground hibernation themes consistent with alien incubation). Nanna could have been almost excavating down to the underground lake when they were playing hide-and-seek in the labyrinthine setting beneath the house.

    Could Nanna be from the Lady’s Blue World? She does have a mermaid-like habit of shedding her clothing, but that could also be the persistence of that traditional role of women being naked for art, as exposed in the Guerrilla Girls’ “weenie count” of male vs. female nudes.

    To balance the prominence of water, Nanna is also skilled in the use of fire – the fairytale elements (highlighted in Sheila O’Malley’s review) of Little Red Riding Hood’s surprise host, and fattening up children with biscuits and putting them in the oven. My friend K asked me if The Visit was the “fairy bread movie, you know the Hansel and Gretel one”:

    “The film unfolds like an urban myth, a variation on the Hansel and Gretel tale. Is there more to Nana’s fixation with baking cakes and cookies than meets the eye?” (Nick Dent’s review).

    Baked goods are a weapon throughout – as a beguiling introduction/welcome at the train station, but then as a burnt walnut lure for Becca to venture downstairs like a breadcrumb trail through a darkened forest, a trap to leave the room after bedtime. Even in a raw state, biscuit dough acts as a barrier on Becca’s computer, hampering communications with the outside world. Based on the movie poster, and the focus on Nanna as being skilled in stereotypical home-crafts, I wondered if her intricate (yet still managing to remain rustic) dishes were going to be poisoned (like the welcoming hospitality of Troll II). Even Nanna’s appearance was “cookie cutter” Grandma stereotype.

    Sean Roberts (Reel Time episode 73) has described the third act as “More of a revelation than a twist”, and that the grounded organic nature of it, rather than being shocking, unfolds with the chronic waiting throughout the movie, just like a visit with family.

    Paired with the build-up towards the ending, was an increasingly uncomfortable perspective on ageing, and the final blow, a treatise of fear towards mental illness. While Becca hunts for the elusive elixir (forgiveness for her mother to act as a salve for a fractured family), the entire movie warps the idea of treatment, salvation or rehabilitation for psychiatric patients. Brian Truitt has noted that the movie touches on themes of “…redemption, forgiveness and the passage of time”, but it seems that redemption is only available to absent fathers or a mother who didn’t share the whole story of a traumatic family rift.

    Much of what is happening is about clinical behaviours, but also playing on the idea of “elderly people are weird” and the director’s “…deep-seated fears and insecurities” about the elderly (Shyamalan has openly acknowledged this in Yeap, Sue. Shyamalan tale takes on primal fears. Kalgoorlie Miner, 26 September 2015, p. 38 via Factiva), also highlighted by David Chen.

    While The Visit is a horror-comedy, a lot of the “funny” bits are generally about a “demeaning senior-citizen freakshow”, as described by Tim Robey:

    …the movie’s fear of the elderly is pathological, and barely even satirical… Essentially it treats old people – not these grandparents in particular, but old people generally – as if they’re already dead: smelly nightmares looming up at you in their soiled nightclothes. The black-comic hysteria of the tone doesn’t let this kind of point-and-gawp callousness off the hook, when what we’re beholding is a prime candidate for the most gerontophobic film ever made.”

    The classic fairytale elements of visiting family-as-strangers in a remote location, “…edged with fable and nightmare” are not enough to overcome the demonisation of ageing and mental illness.

    As the action pepped up, Becca and Tyler were able to overcome their blocks from their father-abandonment issues. Becca’s fear and horror at her own reflection is subverted in her stabbing of Nanna with a mirror shard, and Tyler’s frozen terror at a sports game morphs into tackling and kicking Pop-pop to death (who, before anointing Tyler with his own scatalogical concoction to mitigate a spell, tells him how much he disliked him from the start). The power is given back to the victims (the children), and the [first set of] murdered grandparents are written off with the mother’s observation that they were caring, and nothing is made of the failure of the mental health system. Christopher Campbell has put it best:

    “They’re not robots or aliens or pod people or villainous masterminds or anything fantastical by any means. The twist is that they’re insane. So then it’s not just elder shame, which it is still, but it’s also mental illness shame.”

    I know someone who strongly believes that the conclusion of the movie was that Nanna and Pop-pop are genuinely aliens. Perhaps they were watching a different Visit movie, but to be honest, a supernatural twist would have sat more comfortably.

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    1. Watched and read list of 2015 | Sonja Barfoed

      […] The Visit (movie at the cinema – this was just so terrible, I have written more about this previously) […]

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