‘Old’ movie review: M. Night Shyamalan delivers anxiety-inducing horror

Modern horror is arguably the most repetitive genre in cinema. Most new horror movies we see tend to use the same tropes and tricks, either descending into outright “gore porn” or sacrificing story for scares. They’re often predictable die-offs, one after the other, with the manner of death getting more and more gruesome as the film progresses.

Love him or hate him, director M. Night Shyamalan bucks this trend, making horror movies that have an interesting story to tell. In Old — based on a graphic novel, Sandcastle, which I now must read — you’re on the edge of your seat until the very end, when the trademark twist is revealed. Clue after clue after clue, it’s still impossible to figure out while you’re watching, causing immense anxiety as the characters try to figure out the mystery before time runs out. Old is a fascinating concept, both suspenseful and scary.

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They’re all stuck on a beach, getting older. It doesn’t seem scary.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, here’s the plot: In a nutshell, a group of people is trapped on an isolated beach in a tropical country, and their aging is inexplicably accelerated to one year every half-hour, so in a full day you age 48 years. I would argue that is very scary, especially because there’s no explanation as to why and there’s no escape from the beach, no matter how much the characters try.

Starring Gael García Bernal as husband and father Guy, Vicky Krieps as his wife Prisca and multiple actors as their two children, Old‘s cast goes a long way in helping tell the story in a compelling way. The supporting players are excellent, too, alternating between being terrifying and terrified. They all have backstories and many secrets, and as time pushes forward at a rapid pace the cracks start to form in their carefully crafted histories.

What do you mean by that?

If you’ve ever been on a resort vacation, then you know what the hotel day trips are like: a bunch of strangers get in a van together and you head off to a destination, as organized by the hotel. This is what happens in Old (with a Shyamalan cameo as the van driver). None of the guests knows each other, except for what they choose to share. It’s fun, and at times disturbing, to watch their fronts dissolve as panic/aging sets in. So much unfolds so quickly, it’s difficult to battle the anxiety about what’s going to happen next — for both audience and characters.

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You’re saying it’s a stressful watch?

Oh my goodness, yes. If you’re not worried about one of the characters, you’re concerned about the ticking clock or the overarching fear of never getting off the beach. Many other Shyamalan movies are peppered with lighter moments and upbeat dialogue; not so much with Old, which is wielded like a blunt instrument of terror. The only time you can relax — kind of — is at the end, once all is revealed. Even then, when the credits roll, the anxiety still nags.

Is there anything more to the movie?

As with most Shyamalan films, it has its weak spots, like characters disappearing during crucial scenes even though there aren’t any other places for them to go. After all, they are confined to a beach.

Old is innovative in that it tackles one of humanity’s greatest fears: aging. Whether we’re petrified of growing old and losing our faculties, or we’re more vain and don’t want to develop wrinkles or grey hair, most people at some point or another have deep dread about getting older.

The movie is most poignant in its closing moments, as lead couple Guy and Prisca realize their marriage arguments and disagreements are all meaningless in the face of rapidly advancing time. Petty things don’t matter when you have mere hours to live, so you have to revel in what you have, while you have it. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt message.

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So what’s the bottom line?

Not your typical horror movie, Old is an anguishing watch. Ironically, I feel like I aged a year or two watching it. While it could’ve used some levity, perhaps that would’ve seemed out of place in such a hopeless situation. If there’s a deeper meaning to the movie, it’s this: appreciate what you have and hold it close. Beauty, youth, intellect — they all fade over time, which, as it turns out, we have scant little of.

‘Old’ opens in theatres across Canada on July 23. Please check your local listings for specific details.

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