I do not have a firm grasp on the current state of M. Night Shyamalan fandom. It’s clear that Shyamalan has sparked a renewed interest in his gimmick-prone novelty horrors since his 2015 found-footage comeback The Visit. Since then, he’s had plenty of online defenders for each of his goofball genre experiments, even if that reclamation positions him as a “vulgar auteur.” What’s unclear is if we’re retroactively extending that goodwill to Shyamalan’s most maligned “misfires” post-Sixth Sense, when he was making equally goofy movies with much slicker Hollywood Studio production values. If so, I’d like to encourage fans of Shyamalan’s latest novelty horror, Old, to double back and give 2008’s The Happening a second chance. The same clash of squirmy shock-horror and semi-intentional humor that makes Old so amusingly bizarre was already potent in The Happening. It was just scaled up to an epic eco-horror disaster thriller then, as opposed to his latest work’s stage play limitations. Shyamalan’s latest set of earnest, go-for-broke horror absurdities are fun, but he has splashed around in these exact novelty schlock waters before, often to grander results.
The Twilight Zone premise and resulting drama of Old is so bar-napkin simple that it was its own standalone meme this past summer, separate from any individual moments or images from the actual film. As you’ve likely heard, the unofficial title of this movie is The Beach That Makes You Old. Once its smattering of vacationing families arrives on that magical beach, terror ensues. They’re trapped on The Beach That Makes You Old until they age out & die, confronted with the inevitable limitations & grotesqueries of the human body and the cruel relentlessness of time. As with all of Shyamalan’s films, this schlocky premise is treated with a surprising amount of genuine, overreaching emotion. Old is a purely parental horror. It strays from that genre’s usual preoccupations with rotten children or grief over a child’s untimely death to instead dwell on how quickly all kids rapidly age into independent adults who don’t need you, as your own body decays into obsolescence. Also, as with all of Shyamalan’s films, Old tosses in just enough overt goofball humor that you know it’s somewhat intentionally funny (including a caricature of a famous rapper who performs under the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan), while also making indecipherable choices that throws that tonal intention & control into question (like having every single character announce their name, occupation, and most prominent illness as conversation starters). It’s a movie where archetypes make broad pronouncements instead of exchanging dialogue, but it’s also a movie that asks you to take their grotesque, time-elapse demises dead seriously. It’s pure Shyamalan in that way.
I enjoyed the questions of tonal intent & control in The Beach that Makes You Old just as much as I did in other recent Shyamalan hits like The Grandma that Makes You Uncomfortable and The Superheroes that Make You Laugh. Still, something about the stripped-down scale of this one made me nostalgic for the days when Shyamalan’s bullshit would be staged on epic blockbuster budgets. There’s something special about Shyamalan using mainstream studio money to make post-Larry Cohen schlockbusters like The Happening, and I’m a little sad that we’ll likely never see those days again. I’m even sadder that The Happening still has a reputation as a creative low-point in his career, while Old is being celebrated as one of his most precious gems. To me, their volatile combinations of quirky character humor & grotesque bodily horror are remarkably similar, but The Happening happens to be a lot more memorable & fun. Maybe it’s just a nostalgia for seeing Shyamalan work in a mainstream filmmaking context, despite his movies always having been an odd fit for the industry. Hopefully all this whooping & memeing will eventually earn his way back into those large-scale money-torchers. I wish nothing but the best for my goofball horror uncle.