The Sixth Sense came out in 1999. This was a time when I was beset by all kinds of anxiety problems usually associated with the looking after of little kids – hypochondria, separation anxiety, mild depression. As a result my hold on popular culture was tenuous, to say the least, and if it hadn’t been for my sister-in-law, singing the praises of The Sixth Sense and the remarkable twist at the end, I’d have never become acquainted with the work of M Night Shyamalan.
You must go see it, I remember her saying, you’ll never guess how it ends. The sister-in-law is not given to hyperbole or emotional excitement, so I had to take note of her recommendation. The husband and I must have got a baby sitter in for we made a rare trek to the flicks to watch Bruce Willis giving an equally rare, understated performance. And, despite the sister-in-law’s protestations, I guessed the ‘twist’, even though I tried really hard not to, because I wanted to be as astonished as the rest of the movie going crowd. Maybe I guessed it because, in a way, I’d been primed to be on my guard, to look for things that weren’t quite as they should be. For me that came almost as soon as BW got shot; in the way that he never actually interacted with his wife; in the way that the hallway door would never open; in the way that the kid was the only one who appeared to be able to see him. And then, in one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, the kid gave it all away, telling old BW: ‘I see dead people’ and at that point the penny really should have dropped for us and BW.
An unpleasant side-effect of watching the 6th sense was the unnerving sensation that maybe I would start seeing dead people whilst going about housewifely duties. And, very shortly after seeing the film, my friend asked if I’d type up stuff for her boss at work, the stuff she didn’t have time to do, which entailed me spending school hours alone in her house. I don’t know about you, but I rarely spend entire days entirely alone in another person’s house. It’s an unnerving situation. There are memories there, hidden within the walls, that belong to someone else.
I know my own house. I know where everything is situated. When I’m downstairs I can picture the upstairs. There are no hidden surprises. My friend’s computer was in the small bedroom upstairs. She gave me a key to let myself in. There’s nothing quite so scary as entering a house that isn’t yours and then climbing the stairs in absolute silence. Ensconced in the tiny bedroom I would type frantically, trying to focus entirely on the screen and not at the strange cupboard in the hallway, or the bathroom door which was just ever so slightly ajar. When not staring at the monitor, I’d stand at the open window, looking out at the life below, petrified to turn around in case there was a dead person standing behind me. I spent about 4 months in this 6th sense-induced, petrified state when, thankfully, the typing job finished and vivid images from the movie (especially the woman with half a burned off face) slowly faded.
Yes, 17 years ago M Night Shyamalan scored a real winner.
And it’s been downhill ever since, according to most movie critics. Shyamalan’s writing and directing star seems to have dimmed to the point that some critics believe that its shining light has been extinguished. I became a devoted follower (via Sky) of every film Shyamalan put out post-6th sense. This meant I sat through The Lady in the Water, The Village, The Happening, Unbreakable, After Earth, Signs – noting all the while that Shyamalan was clearly also trying to say something meaningful in amongst all the Sci-Fi/thriller/horror. These movies were subsequently lambasted for overusing a winning formula, for trying to add a shocking, surprising twist every time, in an effort to replicate the wild success of the 6th sense. But I enjoyed all of them, in the weird, self-punishing way that I enjoy a good psychological horror flick. Not least because Shyamalan’s style is reminiscent of two of the best populist movie makers – Spielberg and Hitchcock. I didn’t fully realise this until yesterday, whilst watching Sky’s premiere of The Visit. How he juxtaposes the normal against the abnormal, in a Spielbergian way, and how his scenes are set up using odd camera angles, in a very Hitchockian kind of way. A Shyamalan film tends to be beautifully shot too.
In The Visit we get Shyamalan’s take on the amateur, hand-held, found-footage (although this footage isn’t ‘found’ since our protagonists survive) genre that’s become so prevalent since Paranormal Activity – and there are nods to that film throughout. Thankfully Shyamalan wisely stays away from the annoying shakiness and blurring associated with the hand-held camera genre by using the premise that one of his child stars (15 year old Becca) is making a documentary for her mother, which requires her to make use of film technique stuff she’s researched via the internet – fortunately this results in a movie in which you can barely tell the difference between a Shyamalan film and the Becca kind.
The Visit features two kids (Becca and her brother Tyler (13)) who are sent to stay with their grandparents in lovely snowy Pennsylvania (Shyamalan’s home town) whilst their mother goes off on a week’s cruise with her boyfriend. The family have been in psychological disarray for some time, since the kids’ dad absconded, and The Visit opens with Becca filming her mother talking about a 15 year split from her parents because of her relationship with their dad. From this chat it transpires that the mother and the kids have never seen the grandparents in all that time, but now the kids want to get acquainted, so they’re packed off on the train. I should have noted here that the mother wasn’t going but, when it comes to horror, the analytical part of my brain tends to shut down.
What is so weird about The Visit (which has been absolutely panned by most ‘respected’ critics) is its unabashed weirdness. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to any of it. As soon as the kids are on the train the precocious, slightly lisping Tyler starts rapping with one of the guards who, upon seeing Becca’s camera, tells them he used to be an actor and plays up to it for all he’s worth (this is a recurring joke in the film.) Tyler has his own YouTube rapping channel but he also has an obsessive aversion to germs, clutching door handles and flicking light switches using a hanky. But he’s funny, good natured and very boyish. Becca is intelligent, sombre, submissive to adult instructions and very, very serious about film making. And so we get a mini-lecture on ‘visual tension’ and ‘mise-en-scene’, when Becca and Tyler find themselves in their bedroom chez the grandparents – Nana and Pop-pop.
By emphasising film structure Shyamalan seems to be sending the whole thing up; both the horror genre and his own perceived style of film making. In fact it’s difficult to discern if this film is supposed to be horribly comic or comically horrid. So we get Becca using extreme forms of visual tension and mise-en-scene, by seating herself and Tyler in a wooden chair placed in the middle of a huge barn and in the middle of a long farmyard track, surrounded by fields and trees. As they interrogate each other our eyes are drawn to the hidden corners of the barn, or up to its rafters, or to the open door full of daylight, wondering what might be in hiding or what might walk through that door. Or we look to the end of the track, searching for any strange apparitions. We also discover that Tyler blames himself for the fact that their dad left (a failed school football tackle) and that Becca cannot look at herself in the mirror due to low self esteem (a useful quality because we all know you should never look in the mirror when starring in a horror flick.) At the end of the movie Becca does look into the mirror and all hell breaks loose.
But the weirdest aspect of this movie has got to be Shyamalan’s treatment of old people, which led a Guardian critic to accuse him of out and out ‘gerontophobia’ (a hatred or fear of the old, in case you’re wondering) – only in the Guardian. Methinks this critic entirely missed the point.
For what The Visit is, is a re-telling of all those long ago fairy tales, tales whose focus is always the destruction of the very young at the hands of the very old. Becca and Tyler are Hansel and Gretel going on a trip through the woods and ending up at the mad Witch’s gingerbread house. They’re Red Riding Hood visiting her nice old granny, who’s really a murderous wolf.
Shyamalan gives us a modern day old hag, as at first Nana is all smiles, dishing out drinks and cookies, but with a slightly unnerving look in her eyes and frighteningly grey, long hair. Things get weird very quickly though, as Pop-pop comes into their bedroom on day 1, telling the kids: ‘we’re old people, bedtime around here is 9.30’ (this is exactly what I tell the sons whenever they are home.) But it turns out that, past 9.30, grandma isn’t in bed – she’s wandering the hallway, in a ghostly white nightdress, projectile vomiting instead. This naturally puts the wind up Becca but, being a submissive girl, she readily accepts Pop-pop’s explanation of a 24 hour stomach bug. (She also later accepts Nana asking her to get all the way inside her gigantic oven to clean it, which couldn’t be more Hansel and Gretel’ish if it tried.)
Seen from the perspective of the strong and the young, old people are indeed very scary and very strange. Shyamalan takes this idea and runs with it, giving us the health issues associated with old age but with a stomach churning twist. Look kiddiwinks, he’s saying, old people are weird, old people are evil, old people are, in fact, insane.
Nana goes walkabout at night because she’s suffering from the onset of dementia and something called ‘sundowning syndrome’ (a new one to me.) As the sun goes down dementia patients’ symptoms become worse, manifesting as disorientation, agitation, suspicion. The person will pace, yell, see or hear things and have extreme mood swings. So Pop-pop writes off the fact that Nana is prone to scratching the walls at night (with nothing on), to galloping around the house like a deranged pony, to sitting in a rocking chair (a la Psycho, laughing hysterically at a set of curtains) to ‘sundowning.’ In turn, Nana writes off the fact that Pop-pop keeps dressing up in a tuxedo, because he thinks he’s off to some ‘costume party’ that never happens, to age-related forgetfulness. It takes Tyler a couple of days to conclude that this is not the case.
It doesn’t help that Pop-pop and Nana live in the kind of house I’m currently trying to turn my house into. All muted cream walls, mahogany lintels, book lined shelves and wooden floors. The Visit has made me wish I’d gone with a different decor scheme.
Our two kids stay in touch with their Mom via skype video (until Nana ‘accidentally’ shuts off the kids camera lens via a bit of strategically placed biscuit mix, which nobody can get off until the end of the film.) At all times the kids pretend that everything is fine at the old people’s hell house until they film Nana wielding a knife outside their bedroom door. They rapidly skype Mom who demands to see what’s so terrible about her old Mom and Dad, so they hold the laptop up at the window where the old crone-like codgers can be seen chatting in the garden (Oh, and later on the camera just captures a neighbour, who had come calling the day before, hanging from a nearby tree – strangely nobody mentions the dead neighbour in the tree.) Mom immediately produces the Shyamalan twist by informing them that Nana and Pop-pop are not her parents and therefore not their grandparents.
It turns out that Nana and Pop-pop are escapees from the local looney bin, where the real Nana and Pop-pop had been counsellors. They’d killed off the real Nana and Pop-pop, dumped them in the basement and taken over their house so they could have a stab (quite literally) at being normal grandparents with a couple of kids. The film ends with the kids overcoming their own inner demons via the fighting off of two actual demons.
(Actually I can’t tell you exactly how the film ends as I had my hand over my eyes for the last 10 minutes, but I’m pretty sure it was something along those lines.)
I don’t know if The Visit will put M Night Shyamalan back at the top of everyone’s favourite movie maker list, but it is strangely entertaining; with its comic bits, and its horror bits, and its weird looney old people bits. And I’m pretty sure Shyamalan isn’t ageist, or mental health’ist – he just knows that a good fairy tale always works.