"Dad, why are you looking at me like that?" – Maddox (suddenly aged sixteen)
Sometimes, the sheer beauty of films is that somehow, the right one comes along at the right time. For example, my mother passed away in 1990 and the release of Steven Spielberg’s Always was the source of a lot of comfort and help in going through the process of grieving, as this was the first close relative I had lost. It’s not a film that found a great deal of favour with critics, but it’s a favourite of mine, because it was what I needed, when I needed it.
And oddly, lately, I’ve been mulling a bit about getting older and the deterioration that comes with it. Not that there’s anything going on, you understand. Just at 61, some thoughts waft in that didn’t when I was a teenager, or in my twenties, forties whatever. Maybe it’s been the long world-wide pandemic, but it appears I’m not the only one who’s been having these maudlin sessions. Take director M. Night Shyamalan for instance. He read a graphic novel called Sandcastle, which elicited this response;
“"The book gave me the opportunity to work through a lot of anxieties I had around death and aging, and things like my parents getting older."
And during the world-wide Covid lockdown, he adapted the story to a screenplay and set about filming it on a deserted beach during the height of the pandemic. Here’s what he said, and a quote that I guess we can all relate to;
"It was strange. We were making a film that had nothing to do with the pandemic, but at the same time it was absolutely about this fear and uncertainty we were all feeling. This fear of infection. It made us think very deeply about death, about survival, and about being in lock-down. This idea of being stuck in a situation and not being able to leave."
So, the film was made under the radar – certainly under mine, I hadn’t heard anything of it, until the trailer was shown at the multiplex and its concept blew me away. (This is how I find it usually goes with Shyamalan’s films; they’re made quietly with no fuss. I see them with no knowledge of what’s coming.) Shyamalan is the master of understated horror, having a firm grip of the concept of the terror of the unseen, or the peripheral. Future generations might well compare his work with that of Val Lewton as far as subtlety goes.
I’m not saying that Old is his masterpiece, it falls just shy of perfection, but it’s in that ballpark of movies that I’ll be turning back to again and again. In tone, it’s very reminiscent of The Happening, which is a textbook exercise in exploiting the fear of the unknown, the unseen that will kill you – like the Covid virus. In The Happening, the protagonists are running away from something that’s carried along on the wind, causing havoc, death and disaster. It’s invisible, but its effects are everywhere. That’s another film that the critics didn’t much care for on release but I think is a masterclass in creating an atmosphere of fear and unease.
And he does it again right here, in a story that at first glance, certainly from the trailer, one might think is straight out of The Twilight Zone. We mainly follow an ordinary family, ordinary in every sense, father, mother, 11-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son. They’re on a holiday in a luxury tropical paradise. What the children haven’t been told is that it’s their last family holiday. The parents are on the cusp of divorcing. The son is pretty precocious and advanced for his age, and makes friends with the son of the resort manager and they invent a symbolic code for fun, passing notes to each other to decode. One morning, the manager arranges for the family to visit an exclusive, private, hidden beach along with a select few others. This appears to be an idyllic tropical paradise within a tropical paradise. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
The nature of the beach isn’t known until the son Trent finds a body in the water, the girlfriend of a rapper who’s been keeping in the background. This instantly causes a doctor among them to become almost fanatically paranoid.
On the beach, there are, half buried in the sand, a horde of personal effects that seem to have just been abandoned over time. It soon becomes apparent that there’s something very wrong about the beach, as it causes rapid ageing and decay. The doctor’s elderly wife dies, both kids Trent and his sister Maddox become teenagers in a matter of minutes, along with another child they’re playing with. But it’s only the bodies that are ageing, Trent is still, tragically a six-year-old in a teenager’s body, soon to become a six-year-old in a twentysomething’s body.
It doesn’t stop there – it soon becomes apparent that the beach is ageing all of them, and exacerbating and accelerating any pre-existing medical condition that they have, including the doctor’s mental illness which manifests itself as schizophrenia, tumours, calcium deficiencies etc are all now wildly out of control. Any attempt to leave the beach via the cavern they entered it results in the escapee blacking out and finding themselves back on the beach.
In a remarkably sensitive scene, the rapidly aging kids are faced with the prospect of having to deal with their parents, as their health deteriorates just as rapidly with sight loss, hearing loss and other ailments. This is juxtaposed with the scenes of body horror which are truly disturbing as some of the group are suddenly ravaged by their conditions.
The one flaw in an otherwise perfect film is that the explanation for what’s happening seems a bit clumsily handled - almost as an afterthought, despite knowing that our distressed group are being monitored. I was comparing this to Jordan Peele’s Us last night, and wondering if Shyamalan had taken an unwise leaf out of Peele’s playbook.
In Us, we have an ordinary family having their home invaded by their seemingly evil doppelgangers in a story that was completely original and horrifying – how can you outthink yourself? The film was sheer genius until the last act, where Peele decided to sledgehammer in an explanation, which undid the unease of the film up to that point. It should’ve been left hanging, in my opinion.
But having said that, pertinent moral questions are raised in the last fifteen or so minutes of Old that are still swimming around in my head the day after the screening, so on reflection, I’m withdrawing my objection.
Each iteration of the kids getting old is so well handled, in that the actors actually LOOK like older versions of each other, the illusion is completely convincing. (Though I have to admit that the ultimate version of Maddox bears a stunning resemblance to Laurie Metcalf, who played Sheldon’s mother in The Big Bang Theory)
This is a textbook, a “how to” on creating an atmosphere of unease that the makers of the interminable Conjuring series could learn a great deal from and I’m guessing that ultimately, this is a film that I’ll watch again and again – unlike Us.
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