M. Night Shyamalan has moved into the genre of intentional horror following years of making terrifying movies accidentally. But Amy M thinks it’s time to end the obsession with found footage films. Found footage is so 1999.
Here’s a secret you didn’t ask for but I’m sharing anyway: I don’t think M. Night Shyamalan movies are that bad. Sure, I’m a little nostalgic. I saw The Sixth Sense at the cinema with my Dad, and Unbreakable combines everything I loved about comic books growing up. Is he a cinematic genius? Absolutely not. But will his movies be remembered for all time. Definitely. Not always for the right reasons (stop casting Mark Wahlberg please everybody), but they’re endlessly referable, and that in itself is infamy.
So I obviously went to see The Visit. According to M. Night himself he made three cuts of this movie: one comedy, one horror, and one a mix of both. The released version is the equal mix, and I really wish it wasn’t. Sure, M. Night’s films are often hilarious (if you haven’t seen this Honest Trailer for The Happening, watch it immediately) but the so called humour in The Visit is oftentimes galling. Maybe if the acting wasn’t below TV movie standards (I’m sure in auditions those kids had total improvisational props, but puh-lease) the comedic moments wouldn’t be so cringe-worthy. The only comedy moments which work are when the grandparents (The Visit, after all, is about two kids visiting their grandparents for the very first time) are at their creepy, death-threatening best. Trust me, once you’ve sat through a 12 year old white boy rapping straight-to-camera on multiple occasions, you too will be ready for death.
The Visit has some good ideas. Kathryn Hahn, for one, brightens up any situation. The twist is pretty good and the tone always unsettling. So aside from the slightly mis-judged mix of comedy and horror, which never tips in either direction quite enough, the biggest problem The Visit has is its found footage format. I’ve read reviews claiming this is not a found footage movie. Granted, it avoids the truly awful shaky-cam so often chosen in the digital age (those Paranormal Activity movies really don’t get any better), but it’s still found footage, filmed by the kids, often straight-to-camera, and it’s wearing more than thin.
Aesthetically, found footage films are less than pleasing to the eye. This often works to a filmmakers advantage in the case of movies like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, which can be made on a budget with accessible equipment and be every bit as scary as expensively made movies. The most recent Paranormal Activity movie, The Marked Ones, was bashed out in about ten minutes and was so shaky I almost puked over several other cinema-goers in the screen. There was no secret that it was a spin-off filler, biding time while the studio got the proper sequel right (it’s finally due for release in October 2015). The very thing that makes low-budget horror good has been force-replicated by the movie studios and it’s making films uncomfortable to watch for all the wrong reasons.
The Visit avoids the cheap digital camera horror cliche by upholding cinematic standards, at least in some respects. But what this means is, at times everything is too clean, and the filler-drivel necessary in found footage films is all the more painful to watch: an established director thinks we want to see a 12 year old white boy rapping about all the pussy he’s getting. Err no.
Gone are the glory days of found footage prowess like Blair Witch which will be classic forevs. Instead of aiding plot (those documentaries which accompanied the release of Blair Witch were super scary and realistic, unsettling in their realism), filmmakers seem to assume that the mere shaking of a camera and some flashing lights will be enough to give us all night terrors. Which is not to say The Visit would be better had its found footage format been more realistic, or had it done away with the format altogether. It has some gaping plot holes, which I can’t give you without spoiling the whole thing, and Kathryn Hahn deserves a meatier role. Some of the dialogue is truly dreadful, although if we’re talking B-movie, I can let that slide. But in general, there needs to be a move away from found footage. I don’t believe that the children in this film would have two cinema quality cameras and enough resources/money/space to film non-stop for a week. They’d have iPhones and film on those. Be serious.
M. Night Shyamalan may not be anyone’s favourite person, but this segue into horror movie territory feels right, and is hopefully the groundwork needed for him to build a career in this genre, making films which are truly terrifying, but for the right reasons, not because Zooey Deschanel can’t look believably scared or because the twist doesn’t remotely live up to the hype.
Amy Mackelden (a.k.a. July 2061) is a writer based on the Isle of Wight. Her writing has featured in places such as heat magazine, New Statesman online, anthologies from Cinnamon Press, Leaf Books and the Emma Press. She won a Northern Promise Award from New Writing North in 2011 and a New Buds Award from New Writing South in 2015. She’s one of the co-founders of poetry magazine Butcher’s Dog, and has made two spoken word/theatre shows, The 8 Fatal Mistakes of Online Dating (& How To Avoid Them), & Retail, which is set in a closed-down Blockbuster & about a shared love of Woody Allen. Her blog, July 2061, was shortlisted in the Blog North Awards 2012. She is totally, 100%, are you fucking kidding me, Team Krakow.