You may have heard that The Visit doesn’t have a twist, that M. Night Shyamalan can probably be let off the hook of his reputation for Sixth Sense and Unbreakable era shockers. But it’s not true. His latest does have a twist, just not one as big as having a character revealed to have been a ghost or a mass-murdering villain the whole time. This one is only slightly a curveball and a foul one at that. It made me much more angry than the ending of The Village and may have put me off of the filmmaker for good.
Obviously the rest of this post involves SPOILERS for The Visit, so tread forward only if you’ve seen the movie or don’t care about it being ruined for you.
Before we get to the twist, I need to set up the context, which is everything to do with the movie’s grandparent characters, played by Deanna Dunagan (“Nana”) and Peter McRobbie (“Pop Pop”). Long estranged from their daughter, they’ve finally managed to at least get her two teenage children to come stay with them in the Pennsylvania countryside for a week of cookies and family history. What the grandkids get beyond that is a sad encounter with the worst aspects of old age.
It’s not played for drama, though. It’s exploited for horror and comedy. The Visit carries on as a vehicle for elder shame, indicating that Shyamalan might hate old people even more than he hates critics.
At first, Nana seems to be suffering from a physical illness as she’s witnessed vomiting profusely onto the floor as she sleepwalks. Then her signs of mental and psychological afflictions increase throughout the week. She claws doors late at night while wearing no clothes. She crawls around underneath the house and then doesn’t realize she’s torn her skirt, exposing her naked backside. She sometimes stares into space or into a well or at the wall, the last as she laughs hysterically to herself.
Her strange behavior is initially explained away by Pop Pop as a product of her being old. Sorry, kids, but the elderly are just awkward, regularly ill and sometimes even disturbing. Later, he reveals that she actually suffers from Sundown Syndrome, which is a real phenomenon associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and causes the worst confusion and violent outbursts to happen after nightfall.
Meanwhile, Pop Pop exhibits his own social awkwardness, a violent spurt of paranoia in public where he thinks a random man is spying on him and he tackles him to the ground and an unsettling procedure of disposing of his soiled adult diapers in plastic bags piled on top of each other in the shed out back. Nana tells the kids that he has incontinence and is embarrassed so he hides the evidence. Between the two of them, they appear to be in need of a move to an assisted living facility but they’re perhaps too proud and feel they can still take care of each other.
As far as how the audience is meant to react to all of this, however, is through the perspective of an overly cerebral 15-year-old girl (Olivia DeJunge) and a very immature 13-year-old boy (Ed Oxenbould). It’s because of him that the audience finds humor in the suffering of Nana and Pop Pop. They laugh at a naked old woman because he says the sight has caused him to go blind. They laugh at her running aimlessly through the house because he mimics her. They laugh and groan at the diapers because of his disgust upon discovering them. Other comedy comes from his reactions directed toward the camera as he expresses his own shock and amusement.
The girl starts off trying to be more sensitive, yet inquisitive. She is a wannabe documentarian, after all. She might even feel like she’s stumbled into her own personal version of Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (unfortunately she makes no references to any real documentaries or documentary filmmakers). She tries to give her grandparents the benefit of every doubt, even when made to clean the oven from the inside during a cheap comical nod to “Hansel and Gretel.” But she is still disturbed and frightened, as any kid would have the right to be in such situations and not having any prior experience with grandparents or maybe any close encounters with the elderly at all.
Ultimately she’s vindicated in her increased fear and suspicion because, here’s the twist: this man and woman are not actually their Pop Pop and Nana. They’re escaped psychiatric patients who’ve murdered the kids’ grandparents (and another woman) in order to pose as them. 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.
Sure, the horror genre depends on the general acceptance of criminal insanity as a trait of murderers and other disturbed characters, but it doesn’t work as an excuse in this movie regarding most of what we’ve watched. Any supernatural twist and all the behavior would have been washed away as being of a bizarre unearthly source, only blamed on age and actual disorders temporarily. “Insanity,” in the vaguest of terms, only explains the killing. And I guess the old man’s act of smashing a shit-filled diaper in the face of the boy. The Sundowning, the actual incontinence and most of the odd behavior remains the product of terrible afflictions that aren’t and shouldn’t be linked to the murders.
The more realistically represented something is in a fiction movie, the less acceptable it is for it to be exploited or made fun of. That we’re supposed to see the whole film as a documentary, regardless of how amateurishly made, only reminds us that real people and their problems, especially those of a psychological or uncontrollable physical nature, are not fair game for comedy and vilification. Even if any of it is exaggerated – making it a little more okay to find some humor and scares in the material – we aren’t made to believe that’s the case.
The Visit, in spite of its mix of jokes and horror is not black comedy, nor is it slapstick nor is it satire. It’s cringe comedy and cringe horror that encourages its audience to find the elderly to be ugly, weird, gross, fearsome and even suspect. Shame on Shyamalan’s shaming.