When we think of the things most likely to scare us in horror movies, chances are the very concept of ageing doesn’t rank particularly highly on the list. With his film Old, adapted from the graphic novel Sandcastle, director M. Night Shyamalan explores our anxieties of how our physical and mental states adapt to growing older via a thrilling concept straight out of The Twilight Zone (one of the best TV series ever).
The elevator pitch is simple; a family visit a luxury resort on holiday, getting told by staff when they arrive that there’s a remote beach just for special guests that they can attend. When they are driven there, they discover they weren’t the only ones who were invited.
An older relative of another family quickly dies, and after barely any time on the beach, their young children have aged through puberty to adulthood. It soon becomes obvious that the beach rapidly ages those who visit it, their entire lifespan accelerating over the course of the day, with no possible chance of escaping the beach and the various effects of getting older.
It’s a surprise nobody has tackled a similar story before, and Shyamalan has fun exploring the varying ways the beach can quickly age people, from a pregnancy cycle that spans a total of 20 minutes, to the various underlying health conditions that emerge for the beach’s inhabitants. But while it’s never been dealt with in such a direct fashion, the very idea of ageing isn’t a new addition to the horror canon. In fact, many of the most lauded horror films throughout cinema history have played on our fears and prejudices surrounding ageing and older people to varying results.
Just think back to how older people are typically presented in horror movies – often seen through the eyes of younger protagonists as villainous or untrustworthy, if not (as is the case with more transgressive horror comedies like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) just outright grotesque in how they’ve been conceived. And this doesn’t stop with human characters; the vast majority of classic horror villains are often creatures withered by age and preying on younger victims to reclaim some sense of lost youth. While there have been some steps in the right direction to introduce older horror protagonists, such as Insidious or the recent Halloween sequels, few horror films still grasp the idea of ageing gracefully.
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One of the most striking things about Old may be that Shyamalan seems uninterested in depicting this concept in a way that could straightforwardly be accused of ageism. The children are the only characters who noticeably age, with the older characters more subtly gaining wrinkles and developing non-visible symptoms as the story progresses.
The only adult character whose physical appearance is negatively affected by age is an Instagram lifestyle blogger, presumably as a comeuppance for being the only one of the characters who has displayed a distaste for bodies that don’t fit a perceived ideal. Surprisingly, the children are never too mortified by the ways in which they age either, a notable antithesis to the ways the concept is usually brought up in teen horror. The central tensions in films ranging from The Lost Boys to the Twilight saga all stem from the need to remain eternally young, a dilemma more integral to those vampire dramas than the need for eternal life.
The concept of ageing in horror often coincides with the depiction of disease and how it affects our bodies. Films like David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, which used its central metamorphosis as an allegory for being an ageing cancer patient, have managed to find tenderness to this where there would otherwise be exploitation.
When on the island, the characters all realise they have various underlying health conditions, which exacerbate during their remaining time there. This is where the director veers most uncomfortably into exploitation, introducing a character’s secret health struggle at the start only to reveal it was merely a Chekhov’s Gun for a deliberately over the top surgery scene.
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Where the film proves more successful, and surprisingly poignant, is the way it handles the characters’ ageing mental states, and grapples with memory and sensory loss. Explorations of Alzheimer’s and dementia have become common recently, with the allegorical Australian effort Relic showing that this remains the one aspect of ageing that horror directors tread carefully when depicting, that film moving as many viewers to tears as it frightened.
Cinema may frequently give us warped perceptions of ageing, but depictions of these mental conditions are horrifying because of how carefully observed they prove to be; there’s a reason everything from Amour to The Father have all been considered horror films. And while Old may be untethered from reality by its very nature, the director tries not to cause distress with how he utilises this into the narrative. It leads to the best, quietest character moment in a film defined by tense spectacle.
M. Night Shyamalan has explored various horror genres and tropes before, from ’50’s B-movies with The Happening, to found footage films with The Visit. Here, he not only explores one of the most integral concepts to horror but subverts some of its worst stereotypes along the way.
Old may be far from flawless, but it doesn’t make ageing out to be a gross spectacle for all its characters in the way so many other directors would have made it. It’s frightening and often undignified, but eventually, it allows its central family to age gracefully – and in a body horror, this remains a bold idea.