A troubled family goes on a dream vacation and is selected by the resort manager for a day at a beautiful private beach. To their surprise, they find that they weren’t the only ones who were invited. Determined to enjoy their special day, they prepare to have fun, but like the song says, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave”.
M. Night Shyamalan’s OLD is one of the purest horror films that M. Night Shyamalan has made to date. To me, it’s his take on body horror. It’s unbearably tense in parts and through a horror story manages to talk about very common and primal fears that all human beings have: namely the fears of growing old and of death. He has found a very economical way to plumb the deep well of human beings’ dread of the ravages of time. Body horror, as a subgenre, is a way to dramatize our own disgust and fright of the meat bag on a skeleton that we all live in. Our terrifying bodies do things that we frequently don’t understand, and in these pandemic days, our disquiet about our bodily systems and disease are at an all-time high. There are many stories about how human beings are the real monsters, but this takes that principle to the cellular level by putting the characters in a situation where a mysterious force takes control of the body’s natural process of aging. It’s also not so far-fetched because there are real-life syndromes that do cause rapid aging in children, the progeroid syndromes – the most well-known of which is Progeria.
It always gives the scare tactic a little more of a nasty kick when it’s actually something that feasibly could happen. It’s the textbook definition of what horror really is. Take a somewhat plausible situation and exaggerate it just enough to make the terror seem inescapable while you explore the human psyche under extreme pressure. It doesn’t just explore our own fears about ourselves, it also examines our fears for those we love, like our parents. It doesn’t dwell too much on grief, but focuses more on the anticipation and feelings of helplessness that precedes it, which are thematically connected to our fears about losing our parents and the helplessness that we feel as human beings. The lack of control over our lives, our loved ones’ lives, and our fates that are as equally as inescapable as the beach.
I have only watched this film once, so I don’t have as many specifics of the technical aspects, but I remember thinking while watching the film that it was gorgeous in a way that I did not remember some of the previous films by Shyamalan to be. Don’t get me wrong, I have discovered that if there’s one thing that Shyamalan knows about filmmaking and clearly prioritizes as a director, it is the cinematography. I pronounced myself to be impressed by his list of cinematographers which includes some legends of the craft. His first few features were lensed by the formidable Tak Fujimoto (The Silence Of The Lambs) and they had a creative run through a number of films. He has also worked with the legendary Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Barton Fink) and Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love), and now Michael Gioulakis (It Follows, US) seems to have formed another creative partnership with Shyamalan that is very exciting. I should have known that this was Gioulakis’s work.
The script was written by Shyamalan and is based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. I think that this is Shyamalan’s first film that is fully an adaptation of an existing story that was written by someone else. I also think that is a good thing for Shyamalan. In adapting a graphic novel, with an existing framework, I think that framework improves the overall end quality of the film. It takes away some of the pressure to generate everything and allows Shyamalan to focus more on telling the story that is already there.
One of the problems that I have had in the past with Shyamalan’s work is the clever trademarks that he seemed to include in most of his films. I understand why he does it, but it takes me out of the film when I see these things that are calculated to stand out, again and again. Some of those trademarks are here again, but they bother me less this time because they don’t continue all throughout the entire film and serve a purpose within the confines of the logic of the film. Things like the director cameo, that in this case is more like a pivotal supporting role, the otherworldly genius child, the sad dad, and the recurring focus on families in crisis. His acting has improved, but seriously, you could give an unknown actor that potentially breakout role, and honestly, I think the role would be better served. It would really be a gift to an actor who hasn’t gotten their break yet, but it’s not my movie.
In terms of casting, the roles are filled well with actors who fit their characters. Alex Wolff and Emun Elliot as iterations of Trent, Alexa Swinton and Thomasin McKenzie as iterations of Maddox, Gael Garcia Marquez as Guy, Nikka Amuka-Bird as Patricia, Ken Leung as Jarin, Rufus Sewell as Charles and Aaron Pierre as “Mid-Sized Sedan” are the standouts among the cast for me.
I do have to note that calling a character that is supposed to be a gangster rapper Mid-Sized Sedan seems to be a joke that is a bit of a misfire for me. It’s a little on the corny side. There are a couple of things that teeter on the edge of cringe for me, this is one example, but overall don’t fall completely over the edge. It was close though.
As I said before, I think that OLD is Shyamalan’s body horror film. He seems to be a bit of a film stylist and goes from subgenre to subgenre working with the tropes of each. He doesn’t do full pastiches of the films in those genres, but works within the boundaries of them. If you work in the body horror subgenre, it is difficult to escape the influence of the work of David Cronenberg and there is a full-on Cronenberg moment in OLD. I just hope that people don’t decide that Shyamalan invented it, but I will consider it a homage to the maestro. His work with the themes of body horror is really quite good. It’s a different, less apocalyptic take and, while there’s nothing I like more than a good apocalypse, his take has its own reasoning and logic and does have a good point, although the ending is a tiny bit on the preachy side.
OLD is very successful at what it has attempted to do and stands as the first Shyamalan film that has managed to really scare me. It is a beautiful film that has a fair amount of ugliness in it as well, as it should. The family drama is the least convincing aspect of it, but the film soars once it becomes a meditation on mortality and the choices we make in life in different aspects. This is also the first Shyamalan film that I have seen which has the hallmarks of horror and an outright willingness to shock and horrify the audience. I can’t remember a film that Shymalan has directed that is as brutal from the standpoint of tasteful gore and violence. While there is an equal focus on the psychological aspects of the plot, Shyamalan has really gone for the gusto with savagery. I think that OLD represents Shyamalan trying some new things and taking some risks, not all of which succeed. He retreats a little towards the end, but overall, I think that his efforts to stretch and the fact that he managed to scare me make this my favorite Shyamalan film.
OLD opens nationwide on Friday, July 23, 2021.