by Matt McKenna
Donald Trump's famous hat promises to “Make America Great Again,” and likewise M. Night Shyamalan's new horror film The Visit promises to make the director's critical reputation great again. While Trump's pithy cap begs the two questions, “Is America currently not great?” and “Was America ever great?”, M. Night Shyamalan is certainly a director whose stature started high and fell fast: his first three films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) averaged a respectable 75% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website and garnered the director comparisons to legendary film great Steven Spielberg, but his next six films averaged an abysmal 26% which is more on par with legendary film non-great Uwe Boll. The question now is, which is more frightening: The Visit or Donald Trump's campaign?
The Visit is shot in a faux-documentary style from the point of view of a teenage siblings, Becca and Tyler, who visit their grandparents for the very first time. We are told that long ago there was a falling out between their single mother and their grandparents, and this first meeting between grandchildren and grandparents is meant to be a moment of bonding and forgiveness for the estranged generations. Of course, The Visit being a horror film, everything goes spectacularly wrong as the kids witness creepy occurrences on their grandparents' remote farm.
In terms of entertainment, The Visit suffers the same malady most horror films suffer in that the first act is boring as the director struggles to coerce the audience into caring about the characters we know are about to have a bad time. Additionally, The Visit suffers from the complementary horror film disorder in which the third act can't compete with the buildup developed by the second act. After all, the second act is the best part of any horror film, the part where a director can showcase their creativity for producing innovative scares and developing a sense of creepiness. In this capacity, The Visit doesn't disappoint; It's scary and fun.
Back in reality, we can see how Trump's campaign is playing out like a horror film with a bad first and third act. The first months of Trump's candidacy–his first act–wasn't especially interesting because it's hard to sympathize with the other Republican candidates who have to put up with him. I mean, does anyone “feel bad” for Jeb Bush? I doubt Jeb Bush feels bad for Jeb Bush. And the third act of Trump's campaign will certainly be as disappointing as the third act of any horror film since everyone already knows Trump can't win. Right now, however, the campaign is firmly in its second act and hitting its horrific stride: each poll in which Trump leads the Republican candidates or catches up to a Democrat produces mixed feelings of terror and excitement in the same way the The Visit's protagonists peeking around corners to find their grandma absentmindedly vomiting all over the floor is both terrifying and exciting.
Unlike the Trump campaign, however, The Visit has artistically redeeming qualities. The middle of the film includes several terrific shots in which an innocently framed subject is upstaged by a spooky image in the background. One such series of shots that's shown in the trailer occurs when the kids use handheld cameras to record each other playing hide and seek in a crawlspace underneath the house. The kids' cameras initially frame nothing in particular as they awkwardly shuffle about in their restrictive environment, but their cameras independently catch sight of something weird at the edge of the frame, and this weird thing inevitably becomes the new subject of the shot. In this case, the new subject is the grandma who, uninvited, decides to join the game of hide and seek in the creepiest manner possible and with agility that defies her years. It's a great scare.
In addition to sharing a genre, The Visit and Trump's campaign bear a strong narrative similarity. The Visit is about children attempting to recreate the past by ingratiating themselves to senior citizens, and really, Trump's campaign is doing the same thing. Whereas in The Visit, the children attempt to recreate an imagined happier time when their mother and their grandparents were on good terms, Trump plays the role of the child and attempts to recreate an imagined happier time in America. In both cases, audiences are left to wonder if this happier time ever existed, and even if it did, is it possible to bring it back and not suffer the horror of deranged grandparents or Donald Trump?
The irony of The Visit is that while its narrative is a condemnation of nostalgia and wishful thinking, the critical success of the film (it's currently at 62% on Rotten Tomatoes) will help Shyamalan recapture some of that prestige he lost during his string of poorly received films. Along the same lines, Donald Trump's presidential campaign's insane attempt to “Make America Great Again” can be read as warning about the power of delusion, yet Donald Trump himself will almost certainly be further enriched from the attention he receives. The main difference I see here is that The Visit makes me look forward to the next Shyamalan film while Trump's campaign makes me look forward to the election being over.