The Visit, The Green Inferno, and The Fear of the ‘Other’ In Hollywood

 

The VisitIt is no secret that Hollywood has a storied history with xenophobia in all its forms, whether it be in Birth of a Nation, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Sheik, and more recently with the forgettable No Escape (which frankly sounds more like the title of a wrestling pay-per-view special that a film).  Though most of these films have been criticized by contemporary audiences, xenophobia still seems to sell (as demonstrated by the initial success of Donald Trump’s presidential bid), and there are few genres where this is more evident than it is in horror films.  Though clever suspense films like It Follows avoid falling into this category, more recent films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno openly embrace this fear of the other in the hopes of exploiting prominent xenophobic sentiments to get a few scares out of film goers.  Where The Visit engages in ageism and psychophobia, The Green Inferno relies on conventional prejudices based on perceived race, but with overt colonial overtones.  In each instance, Shyamalan and Roth, who in the past have demonstrated their respective abilities to create innovative suspense sequences, lean on the crutch of lazy film making, relying on unoriginal tropes to scare base audiences.

 

The stunning Deanna Dunagan, who stars as 'Nana' in The Visit.

The stunning Deanna Dunagan, who stars as ‘Nana’ in The Visit.

Given the creative minimalist approach that Shyamalan employs in The Visit, it is disappointing that he placates to ageist stereotypes to garner a response from his audience.  The film, which tells the stories of a pair of youths visiting their estranged grandparents for the first time, offers several sequences that allude to health problems associated with aging.  Deanna Dunagan’s ‘Nana’, for instance, has apparent moments of senility in which she seems to forget when and where she is.  She also has fits of vomiting, and engages in odd behaviour after nightfall.  Likewise Peter McRobbie’s ‘Pop Pop’ displays moments of absent mindedness, attacking a man for no apparent reason in one scene, and getting dressed for a non-existent gala in another.  In addition, the character also requires the use of adult diapers. Collectively, these behaviours frighten the grandchildren: Becca and Tyler (played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould respectively).  The film almost saves itself from accusations of ageism when their mother (Kathryn Hahn) explains that such things are natural for some elderly people and assures her children that their fears are unreasonable.  This could have been a plot point that highlighted the misconceptions fostered by ageism.  However, events in the film end up validating the fears, and Shyamalan employs both the vomiting and the adult diapers as sight gags meant to stimulate disgust and revulsion in the audience.  In this way he exploits the medical complications associated with aging to get a cheap response from the audiences and reinforces the unreasoned fears characteristic of ageism.

 

 

Olivia DeJonge, star of The Visit.

Olivia DeJonge, star of The Visit.

What makes the film especially problematic is that it not only invokes ageism to push its suspense, but compounds it with psychophobia: the fear of people with mental illnesses.  When the children’s mother reveals that (SPOILER ALERT!!!), the couple who picked them up from the train station are not their grandparents after all, it is revealed that not only are they elderly, but they also suffer from mental illnesses.  Though the film does not adequately explain these illnesses, is seems as though delusions and auditory hallucinations were present, and that schizophrenia was likely in at least one case.  In framing this pair of mentally ill elders as homicidal killers guilty of premeditated murder, Shyamalan grossly exaggerates the degree of violence associated with such mental illnesses and further stigmatizes them in a manner that only exacerbates the predominance of psychophobia and mentalism.  People with schizophrenia seldom hurt others, and when their illness does cause harm to somebody, it is more often than not the person with the illness.  Coupled with this, there are few, if any, documented cases where people with a mental illness pair up and plot the murder of young children they don’t even know.  In vilifying these two elders suffering from mental illnesses, and also exploiting the difficulties of aging to elicit repulsion in the film’s viewers, Shyamalan does a discredit to the film, and his oeuvre.

 

The Green InfernoThe xenophobic elements of Roth’s film seem far more overt, adopting colonial fears based on perceived race and casting indigenous natives as cannibalistic killers.  When Justine (Lorenza Izzo) and some of her fellow college students take a trip to Peru with the aim of saving a group of indigenous people from a logging firm that seeks to tear down the rainforest wherein the natives live, the students ironically find themselves taken hostage by the very people they sought to rescue.  Though one might understand the hostility the group of natives might project onto the group of Western students, who are easily confused with the antagonistic loggers (all white people in lime green jumpsuits look the same), the degree of violence that takes place is beyond barbarous.  One scene, which sees a man’s eyes gouged out and tongue cut of before being dismembered whilst alive, comes across as unoriginal in terms of the cinematic gore (which is the film’s only selling point), and subsequent scenes where hostages are turned into food border on the farcical.  Though some of this was likely done with Roth’s tongue place resolutely in his cheek, the message being sent is that the indigenous people are barbaric and the colonial conquests are justified.  This only serves to perpetuate myths of cannibalism as a prominent feature in native cultures, and given that Roth doesn’t present an alternative to this tribe, and nor does he even explain the context of their cannibalistic tendency, he is essentially orientalising the tribe.  The plot reinforces notions of colonial superiority and frames the ‘other’ as an unreasoned and violent antagonist, validating imperial xenophobia.

 

Lorenza Izzo, star of The Green Inferno.

Lorenza Izzo, star of The Green Inferno.

This is not to assume that Roth embraces such sentiments, merely that they are present in his film, whether intentional or not.  In the past, Roth has employed innocuous threats, such as a virus in Cabin Fever, and has indeed been critical of the West’s ruling class, who took on the role of antagonist in his classic horror film Hostel.  Even this later film, though, had a touch of xenophobia as it was a narrative about American tourists being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by an underground network of European flesh traffickers.  In this respect, the antagonist was still an ‘other’.  The Green Inferno, though, ultimately proves unable to overcome the overtly prejudicial overtones that overshadow what Stephen King referred to as “a glorious throwback to drive-in movies”.  One calls to mind such films as Cannibal Holocaust, but even in this respect The Green Inferno comes up short as it lacks the originality of this controversial classic cacophony of carnage, and is without the self-reflective conclusion that contextualizes the violence in Cannibal Holocaust.  This failure is made all the more frustrating as Roth fails to capitalize on the environmental overtones he invokes, and that end up doing little more than serving as a MacGuffin of sorts.  Where the logging company could have provided the source for the true terror, or even nature, Roth relies only on colonial prejudices that stigmatize indigenous people.

 

 

Roth (left), and Shyamalan (image borrowed from here).

Roth (left), and Shyamalan (right).

Both Shyamalan and Roth are adept filmmakers, Shyamalan in particular with regards to storytelling and suspense, and Roth in terms of his ability to creating visually memorable scenes of violence and gore (though neither is limited to these skills). This is why it is so frustrating to see films like The Visit and The Green Inferno, because both of these film makers are masters of the craft and are capable of creating from more imaginative sources of fright.  Shyamalan has done this in films like Signs and The Village, and Roth has done the same in works like Cabin Fever and Hemlock Grove (which Roth produces).  In The Visit and The Green Inferno, these visionary storytellers do themselves a disservice by passing up on opportunities to tell stories that not only frighten audiences, but compel them to re-examine their biases, and instead rely on clichés that reinforce xenophobic stereotypes about the elderly, the mentally ill, and indigenous peoples.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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