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Sun, sand and Shyamalan scares in new movie Old.

Universal Pictures

We’ve all had family vacations that make you feel you’ve aged years. Spare a thought then for the unfortunate holidaymakers in Old, M Night Shyamalan’s new age-old shocker in theaters now.

The writer/director of The Sixth Sense, Glass and Apple TV’s The Servant adapted the story from 2010 Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters. In this sun-dappled big screen version, Gael García Bernal and Vicky Krieps play a married couple on their last vacation before they deliver devastating news to their kids. But marital strife is the least of their worries when the blandly creepy manager of their too-good-to-be-true resort offers the use of a private beach. It’s perfect; the sort of place you could wish to spend the rest of your life. Which may just be the case, as the assembled beach-goers realise they’re starting to age at an accelerate rate.

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The idyllic setting provides a macabre contrast to the terror that ensues. As the waves crash and the sun beats down, this unfortunate group finds their bodies begin to betray them in a succession of icky body horror moments.

Basically, Old is like the whole of Lost compressed into a Twilight Zone episode. Luckily, the group includes a surgeon and a nurse, both of whom are called upon to use their skills in ways they’d never have imagined possible. Rufus Sewell is commanding as the domineering doctor who may actually be the most sinister threat on the beach, while Nikki Amuka-Bird is by turns comic and heartbreaking as a psychologist trying not to lose it. And Ken Leung is the un-showy heart of the cast. 

Many supernatural shaggy dog stories like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror suffer the same problem: you know a big twist is coming and your attention wanders as you find yourself wanting to just skip to the explanation. Shyamalan is partially blame for that since The Sixth Sense’s infamous last-minute rug-pull, but perhaps fittingly for a film that warns against wishing your life away, Old mostly avoids this as the premise promises to be more interesting than any possible explanation. In fact, Old has such a rich and horrifying concept that a neat explanation could only diminish it. So the film’s ending is perhaps the weakest part of the film when Shyamalan departs from the graphic novel’s abstract philosophising.

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A vacay goes awry in Old.

Universal Pictures

Confronting age and death in such a direct way is a spine-tingling concept, but you’re left to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself. Shyamalan leans towards set capital-H Horror set piece scares rather than letting the existential dread creep through the character dynamics. Abby Lee in particular deserves so much more than playing a beautiful yet shallow trophy wife, while García Bernal is inexplicably anonymous throughout. There’s so much opportunity for chilling and thought-provoking emotional horror in the relationship between a vain young woman and an arrogant older man, or in an awkward tween unprepared for what comes next. But Old offers almost nothing about the pressure on kids to grow up, a subject tackled much more intelligently and affectingly in Bo Burnham’s drama Eighth Grade.

Shyamalan sketches in some of this human drama with throwaway lines here and there, but otherwise goes for more superficial thrills. Which brings us to the obligatory reflection on how this story resonates in the Covid-19 era. The graphic novel predates the pandemic, but the film was shot in late 2020. You’d think a cataclysm which robbed so many of us of our parents and grandparents might prompt a deeper reflection on our final moments with our elders, but the film can’t get to grips with anything so profound. Why delve into deeper emotional fears and anxieties when you can indulge in some impromptu surgery or a slightly ridiculous fight?

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Similarly, after the backlash against Shyamalan’s portrayal of a murderer with dissociative identity disorder in 2016 thriller Split, the writer and director doubles down with depictions of both mental illness and physical disability being monstrous. But these body horror moments are schlocky rather than scary.

These scenes also recall the much more full-bloodedly horrifying work of Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster (which isn’t helped by the presence of the son from Hereditary, Alex Wolff). A big part of Aster’s style is the jarring editing and unnerving cinematography, to which Old seems to aspire but can’t fully commit.

These aren’t the only cringey thing about Old. There’s also Shyamalan’s trademark stilted dialogue. A character turns out to be a famous rapper called — I’m not kidding — “Mid-Sized Sedan”. And while the film prods at questions of race, it’s jarring that a Black character is introduced and framed as a mute and menacing figure, a cheap and unpleasant ploy.

Old taps into powerful and chilling fears about age and mortality, about your body failing you, about watching your parents crumple and fade and knowing you’ll follow them all too soon. If only it knew what to do with that existential fear other than jump scares. Oh well; Life’s a beach and then you die.

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