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    A thrilling visit

    It's a strange, strange world in The Visit, and it gets stranger when madness reveals itself.

    With films like The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan gave us the ultimate twist. With The Visit, he takes us on a mysterious exploration of what lurks beneath the ordinary lives of grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter Mcrobbie) whose idyllic existence on an isolated farm in rural Pennsylvania is an unruffled picture of quietness and tranquillity. Until their grandchildren, two spirited teenagers, arrive for a week-long visit.

    Intelligent, soulful Becca (Olivia Dejonge) is an amateur filmmaker who is filming a documentary about their trip to visit their maternal grandparents, an elderly couple who they've never met. She and her younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, an aspiring rapper who deals with anxieties through elaborate OCD rituals, want to experience what they've missed for so many years: the unconditional love of grandparents.

    Finally, it is their chance to be spoiled and to feel like any other grandchild should - and to discover just why their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has kept them away from her parents until now.

    Nothing is ordinary in a Shyamalan film and when the darker side of human nature gradually surfaces, it spirals into a tense-and-thrilling visit that will long be remembered.

    A thrilling visit

    Moments of pure terror

    Although it does have moments of pure terror, and there are times that you will jump out of your seat, it's equally a clever and delightful undertaking of Shyamalan to explore his own journey as a filmmaker from childhood up to now and poke fun at those who become too obsessed with their craft.

    The Visit is told from the point of view of handheld cameras, giving the film a documentary feel and allowing us to only see what the storyteller witnesses.

    This is incredibly unnerving as it places us behind closed doors, where we can only hear horrific noises, but cannot see what happens, and amplifies our pre-perceptions.

    This results in scenes of pure genius, where the stillness of a singular shot is suddenly disrupted by unforeseen erratic behaviour, or times when the frenetic camera movement turns calm into chaos.

    This is where Shyamalan's genius as a filmmaker surfaces, skilfully composing each frame and action and fully manipulating our emotions. He plays an exciting cat-and-mouse game with his audience; at times when we desperately want to see what we think we envisioned, Shyamalan reveals nothing, and at times when we expect nothing to happen, all hell breaks loose.

    It's this manipulative magic that raises suspense and intrigue and offers a satisfactory pay-off for those who enjoy films of the macabre that explore the darkness of human nature.

    If you are looking for an unusual encounter with 'things that go bump in the night', The Visit will not disappoint.

    The best is simply to take the trip with the two teenagers and not to expect anything. Don't over-think it or ask too many questions until the ending, and you will be rewarded.

    A thrilling visit

    Behind the scenes

    When movie-goers first heard the name M. Night Shyamalan in 1999, the introduction was accompanied by his worldwide phenomenon, The Sixth Sense. Since that time, the filmmaker has helmed hits that include Unbreakable and Signs, but he has wanted to get back to his independent roots and make a smaller picture that would speak to a primal, lifelong excitement: being terrified at the movies.

    For the writer/director, who counts The Exorcist, Jaws, Psycho and Alien among his favourite slow-building thrillers, movie making is an inside-out process in which the plots of his stories arise from the characters themselves.

    To that end, Shyamalan is fascinated with the drama inherent in his characters' lives, and he believes that thrillers that don't begin with a solid dramatic base are not ones worth making. He gravitates toward the genre because he appreciates what it allows good storytelling, admittedly finding its suspense to be both visceral and mischievous.

    Recently, Shyamalan has missed the intimacy of smaller movies, and he got to work on a screenplay about a family that had broken apart and was trying to find its way back together.

    He says: "I make a conscious effort to think about my stories in terms of the human beings involved, the implications of their actions and their relationships."

    The filmmaker felt that this decision gave him the freedom to focus his energies primarily on the plotting of story and character development.

    Shyamalan notes: "One day, I said, 'We're going to make small movies from now on.' There is a speed that ideas come to me, as well as a certain time that they're meaningful to me. For a big movie that takes three years to make, it is just too long. I need to write it, make it and shoot it with the same power that came from the idea that made sense to me at that time."

    As he crafted the story of a family who was attempting to grieve their past and move on, Shyamalan was adamant that his shooting style reflects their brutally honest journey.

    First-person documentary format

    Walking us through his strategy, he says: "The film is in a first-person documentary format, and there's a level of veracity that's so hard to attain when you are scripting it. With movies such as Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, their benefit was that they were catching things spontaneously. It felt authentic."

    Indeed, Shyamalan's inspiration from blockbuster producer Jason Blum's Paranormal Activity series helped him as he constructed The Visit. He explains: "The film strategy is to make everything look like it was by chance, and that is challenging. Two of the characters in The Visit have cameras, so it is an approach of filming two different styles to distinguish between the two."

    "I've seen almost every scary movie in the past decade, and it's hard to unnerve me, "says Blum. "I found The Visit to be simply terrifying. But it wasn't just wonderfully scary; Night made a film that is so incredibly fun. That's a rarity in the style of filmmaking and an extraordinarily difficult thing to accomplish in this genre."

    The producer appreciates the moxie that his colleague has long showed, and he believes that it is his job as a curator and champion of smaller movies to think constantly about how to tackle films differently.

    Says Blum: "There's a tendency in Hollywood to believe: 'If a breakout movie is successful, let's just repeat it.' I've long thought that you should do the exact opposite. Night brought us this mock-documentary-style film that has deliberate, beautifully composed shots, and I was as impressed that his movie was inspired by some of my favourite films like The Shining and Psycho.

    "Shyamalan instinctively gets that terror is in what is unseen and just around the corner. The scares that Night achieves with this film are deceptively simple. He lulls us into a sense of safety and security with a relatable premise of two kids visiting their long-lost grandparents for the week and created something so terrifying and original."

    "The Visit is formatted like no other movie," says Shyamalan.

    "That is exciting and dangerous. The main character is a 15-year-old filmmaker who believes in the power of cinema. It is me being a kid again wondering if I believe in filmmaking as magic."

    About Daniel Dercksen

    Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit www.writingstudio.co.za
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