Our Drew looks into why one of Hollywood’s most divisive minds may be its most misunderstood…
So I saw Old when it came out, and started writing a script for a video on it. It’s still the most entertaining film I saw all year, and I really wanted to make a video highlighting what a genius M. Night Shyamalan is. But as I was writing, I realised that everything in the movie is so idiosyncratic and strange that descriptions wouldn’t even come close, and there was no way I was going to be able to use clips that close to release without it getting taken down. I was considering doing a Folding Ideas-style vlog with my girlfriend who saw the film with me, just because we had so much fun talking about it, but I chickened out because I’ve never done that before. I’m absolutely useless without Tom as a host.
With what it was possible to include in a written-only piece, it ended up just being a recommendation slash review, which felt so limited compared to the scope I had in mind. Combine that with having to toss out half of the writing, and it sucked out all the enthusiasm I had for the project. Not only that, it had also been about two weeks since release by that point so there’d be less than zero point releasing a review. By that point, online discourse has already moved on to the next thing, and you’re just another rebound in the internet echo chamber.
However, when I checked out what reviewers and what have you were saying about the film, it did not reflect my views in the slightest. Regardless of whether they ultimately gave the film a positive or negative review, most people were taking it seriously as a horror-thriller from start to finish. Even then, many said it was one of Shyamalan’s better works, which both says a lot about the quality of Shyamalan’s work, and the kind, forgiving souls of those reviewers. Yep, kind and forgiving – that’s what they are. To say the least, this perplexed and alarmed me. I called Shyamalan a genius earlier, and I mean that – but to be specific, I don’t think he’s a thriller genius, he’s a thriller fluke. I think he’s a comedy genius. Taika Waititi? Hack. Kevin Smith? Please. Edgar Wright? No way. M. Night Shyamalan is the greatest comedy director of our generation.
And I thought we were all on the same page about this; I mean, if you end up in Chris Stuckmann’s Hilariocity series, you’re some verified funny shit on the level of Battlefield Earth or The Room. I felt like I and the other people in my audience had seen a completely different movie to everyone else, because we were laughing our asses off. We clearly recognised a comedy when we saw one, and responded appropriately. So either this is a Clue-type situation and everyone else saw a different movie to us, or there’s something going on in the way we engage with a piece of work – and I find that really interesting.
I’ll get to what I mean, but to kick things off I’m just going to run through the basic plot of Old. Why? Because Youtube, that’s why. Give me all your minutes. And it’s so we’re all on the same page, so now’s as good a time as any to say that this video is going to spoil the everloving crap about every twist. I highly encourage you to switch off and watch the movie first if you haven’t already. Don’t rush your first time. Make it special.
Old primarily follows a family of four taking a vacation to an upscale resort. The wife recently found out she has cancer and had an affair, so they’re getting a divorce and wanted to have one last nice holiday as a family. The dad is an actuary, the mum is a curator, and the daughter, Maddox, wants to be a singer. It is very important I let you know their occupations. Very. Important. The son, Trent, makes friends with this seemingly orphaned kid who hangs out at the resort, and the family gets invited out to a private beach by the manager and are driven there by M. Night Shyamalan. They’re joined by several other guests – a nurse and a psychologist, a doctor along with his mother, his wife, and their daughter Kara. Already at the beach is a famous rapper. Once again, it is vitally important that you know their occupations. Vitally. Important.
On the beach they find seemingly-ancient rusted objects and personal possessions, including a list of names and addresses. While there, the dead body of the rapper’s date washes up on shore, and they all suspect the rapper of murder. While they’re trying to figure out what to do, they realise that they’re all rapidly ageing. The doctor’s mother dies, the kids have all grown into teenagers, the adults are greying and wrinkling, and the rapper’s girlfriend decays completely within minutes – their best estimate is that all the adults will be dead by the end of the day. They’re completely surrounded by a sheer cliff and the ocean, and when they try to go back out the way they came, they pass out, leading them to conclude that it’s something to do with a natural magnetism in the rocks. They regularly see figures with what appears to be cameras on top of the far-off cliffs observing them. It transpires that most of them are suffering from a particular malady that’s being exacerbated by the time passing.
The mother’s tumour grows rapidly and needs to be cut out; the doctor has schizophrenia and is also a racist, both of which worsen rapidly; the doctor’s wife has a calcium deficiency, causing her body to deform as it’s stuck in place for years – so on and so forth. The psychologist was previously shown to suffer epileptic seizures but is conspicuously fine on the beach. The doctor starts losing his mind, and later stabs the rapper to death. The children age into young adults, and Trent and Kara have sex, resulting in her becoming pregnant and giving birth within minutes. The baby dies immediately from neglect. The nurse and Kara both pass out and die trying to swim around and climb the rocks respectively. The psychologist finally starts to suffer from her epilepsy and dies after a continuous chain of seizures. The mother begins to lose her hearing, and the father starts going blind. The doctor’s wife loses her mind and dies after her bones break and heal repeatedly into a twisted mess, and the doctor attempts to kill the remaining adults, but is stabbed with a rusty knife left by a previous group on the beach, and he dies of tetanus. The original family, being the only survivors, sit and wait as the parents reconcile and die. In the morning, the now middle-aged son and daughter decode a message from the kid they hung out with at the resort, clueing them in that the coral further out in the bay is their key to escape. They theorise that there is an underwater tunnel to the ocean, and the coral will prevent them from passing out.
Sure enough, they manage to escape, and blow the lid on the whole operation: it turns out that the resort is a front for a pioneering medical research lab who are using the beach’s ageing properties to test the long-term effects of their medication, which is given to the visitors secretly in a cocktail upon arrival. The person filming them on the cliff was actually M. Night Shyamalan, and most of the visitors were selected – the mother for her cancer, the doctor for his schizophrenia, the doctor’s wife for her calcium deficiency, the rapper for his haemophilia, and the psychologist for her epilepsy. The only success of the experiment was the epilepsy medication, explaining why it took so long for the psychologist to have a fit. The son and daughter leave the resort to live with their aunt.
Now that we’re all on the same page, I think it’s fair to say that if you try and engage with Old as if it were a horror-thriller, it’s a terrible film. Downright awful.
The acting is probably fine but it doesn’t feel fine because they all have to say such dogshit lines. Characters are about as two-dimensional as it’s possible for characters to be, usually possessing only one personality trait that is also their occupation. There’s also some really bad dubbing that sounds like they recorded it in the underpass of a busy highway. The natural scenery and lighting is pretty, but it’s filmed in such bizarre, distracting ways that immersion is near impossible. There are several genuinely uncomfortable and horrifying scenes that still never quite reach their full potential impact, on account of the aforementioned dogshit. The momentum and pacing is pretty good up until the point Shyamalan decides he’s going to try a fake out that the main characters have died, reveal moments later that they have in fact survived to take down the resort, and then show you the moment that they escaped the beach accompanied by swelling, victorious music, like you don’t already know they survived. Rather than ending the movie at either of these triumphant moments, and despite cutting to black like he knows it’s the natural end to the film, there’s one more scene that does nothing but clarify the two children are now going to live with their aunt.
And if you could just allow me a couple of moments to nitpick the film, I really think it’ll make me feel better. Because Shyamalan made the same mistake that I think Jordan Peele made in Us – he provided a concrete answer to what was going on, and what was going on was purely physical, nothing magical or metaphorical and definitely not open to interpretation, which also opens up many cans, full of many worms.
Like, how have the resort people been able to do this for long enough to have tried it 80-odd times, when the last known location of dozens of wealthy missing people is the resort? Don’t get at me with the whole, they kept their passports and took them on a private plane, because they’d have had to go through customs, and if they didn’t leave the US why the hell did they take their passports? Plus the doctor’s wife was taking photos the entire time, and everyone clearly had internet at the resort. How did the amount of medicine contained in a single cocktail remain effective for what was effectively decades? Wouldn’t their bodies have processed and expelled it? Speaking of, why weren’t they peeing constantly? Why didn’t the food decay? If the baby died immediately from neglect, why didn’t they all die of dehydration in seconds as soon as they stepped on the beach?
Nope, I was wrong. This didn’t make me feel better. I don’t want to engage in fridge logic. But Shyamalan made me, by trying to apply logic to something completely illogical. He dared us to poke holes in it. The story doesn’t make any sense, which is totally fine, because then the deeper meaning is allowed to shine because you’re not hung up on the ‘how’s and the ‘why’s and whatnot. The questions Shyamalan is making you ask is “why weren’t they all peeing?”, when the questions you should be asking are “who was watching them, me or God?” I’m not kidding, that’s two of the main interpretations of the comic.
All in all, Old is a really bad thriller. But so is The Hangover. Because neither were trying to be. It’s not Shyamalan’s fault that you thought his movie was a thriller. It’s your fault for not watching it as a comedy. OK let me break this down in three main sections – Character, Screenwriting, and Cinematography. This isn’t for you by the way, this is to organise myself. It’s not all about you, alright.
Everyone in the movie possesses a single character trait without a hint of nuance. They are as follows: Guy – details-oriented; Prisca – distant; Patricia – empathetic; Jarin – practical; Charles – racist; Trent – autistic; Idlib – spicy autistic; M. Night Shyamalan – M. Night Shyamalan; Agnes – old; Brendan – black; Maddox – Hufflepuff; Chrystal – trophy wife; Kara – girl; manager – the murderer in a Scandinavian crime drama; Sidney – nerd; and Madrid – Hugh Jackman veins.
I named this section Characters, but that’s really not appropriate. Because all these people are are their jobs. It’s literally all they talk about, and it defines their approach to every situation. For instance, the psychologist is constantly trying to create safe spaces and get everyone to group share while they rapidly age to death. This all seems to be precipitated by this fucking kid constantly asking people for their names and occupations, but it’s rampant across the entire film without his influence.
The father, an actuary, constantly quotes statistics to everyone, obviously as a means of reassuring them and himself, which isn’t terrible in its own right. It does make sense that in a trying situation where the rules and solutions are unclear, someone might turn to something learned, something reliable and concrete to help give them a foundation to work from. The problem is, that’s his reaction to absolutely every situation, including the somewhat supernatural imminent death of himself and his entire family. If your sole response to life-threatening danger is to quote statistics, you’re not a human being, you’re C-fucking-3PO. C-3PO being, of course, the comic relief character of Star Wars. Imagine an entire cast of C-3POs.
Some of it is actually used as legitimately good storytelling. The mother is a museum curator, and at one point the father points out that she treats her family like her exhibits. In a way she is trying to label and compartmentalise her living, feeling family into a simulation of a happy family, in an attempt to exert control over the life that she feels – thanks to the tumour – is slipping away from her. Shame he completely lost sight of that really cool simile and just had her say things like “you can trust I’m not hysterical because I curate museum exhibits”. After that, just like everyone it only serves a plot function, namely exposition about the decay rate of bodies so they can estimate the rate they’re ageing.
There is a neat bit of planting and payoff with the jobs, where one of the people Trent and Idlib are talking to tells them he’s a cop. At the end of the movie, Trent remembers this and goes to him to report what the resort is doing. That’s a pretty good callback for attentive viewers. But that’s also like saying that every quid in the fruit machine is justified because you might hit the jackpot. Other writers manage the same thing without needing to beat you over the head with it.
It’s also not the first movie he’s done this in. The many personalities of Kevin in Split can likewise mostly be summarised with a single hobby or personality quirk. Barry is into fashion; Hedwig is into hip hop; Dennis has OCD; this fucking guy makes ponderous rants about history; of the two times across two movies that Jade is on screen, both are about how she’s diabetic.
The only ones who come close to possessing more than one trait are Dennis and Patricia, and Dennis’ second trait is paedophile. Patricia has one trait, which is that she’s creepy, but it’s like a prism of creepy. The creepy refracts and takes on different shapes and colours. One of the shapes is comedy, because most of Patricia’s lines are just the funniest shit imaginable. I could watch this all day.
The Happening is riddled with characters that are incapable of communicating or processing situations without turning to maths and science. Under normal circumstances this would be an admirable approach, like in The Martian. What’s funny is that the characters do this actively, in situations that are not in any way helped by a scientific method. John Leguizamo says that he tried comforting his mother during what they believed to be a terrorist attack by quoting a bunch of statistics at her, and is surprised when this doesn’t work. Like, of course!
If this whole public health crisis has taught me anything, it’s that statistics and empirical evidence actually make people more hostile, even to the point of being irrational. An easy defence for this is that characters have flaws, but I don’t think you can say that when it’s clearly the writer transposing their own thing on multiple characters.
It’s also just not that big of a deal to people in the real world. For my day job I’m in sales, and I choose to spend my free time ranting about strange films, and even if my job were to make think pieces about films, I’d probably want to turn it off every now and again. Chat politics or play some music. But even in arms-length Shyamalan works, the job is everything. This fucknut in Devil, after he and several others get trapped in an elevator, immediately starts trying to sell a mattress to an old lady. Like he’s heard the phrase ‘elevator pitch’ but misinterpreted it that elevators are a really good place to hawk furniture.
To be fair to Shyamalan just once, in Old alone, this is actually a recurring feature of the comic. The doctor, the nurse and the writer introduce themselves as such; it’s actually the first thing the writer says, and most of his subsequent dialogue is about his sci-fi theories about what’s going on. But equally fairly, the comic is 108 pages long, while the movie is 108 minutes… and also a movie. He had all the time in the world, and a whole genre’s worth of audio-visual and literary techniques he could have used to convey character over the course of the film beyond them talking about their jobs.
But he didn’t. And do you know what that reminds me of? Airplane. A far superior comedy for sure, but a fellow comedy nonetheless. What Shyamalan is doing is deliberately employing archetypes from survival horror films, so as to mock them. This guy saying “damn” a lot is not dissimilar to the guys speaking jive in Airplane, or every other African American in a movie. I wouldn’t call it stereotyping in Shyamalan’s case because they’re all so unique. We do have a word for when a real human being has a few traits exaggerated to unrealistic proportions to call attention to them – the better word is caricatures, and they’re a staple of comedy.
No one talks like a real human being, they talk like the corporate press summary of a D&D character sheet. They have one trait and that is all they’re going to talk about. Standing at the pinnacle of this mountaintop is Midsize Sedan who… well like I said, he just says “damn” a lot, there’s nothing else to it. It’s a literal catchphrase like he’s a recurring sitcom character. It’s also kind of a racist stereotype, but to fair, where would comedy be without racism?
Speaking of, his stage name is Midsize Sedan, of course this is a comedy. The dad kind of pokes fun at it, and you could say that he’s being a dad, and just doesn’t get it. But he’s not wrong, it’s a stupid-ass name (stupid burger name). In the real world we have performers with stupid-ass names. I mean, Lil Pump exists. But it’s important to note that they all fall within a very consistent naming convention, and if it deviates from that, like Childish Gambino, there’s usually a story behind it. I was amazed that the final cut of the film doesn’t contain a monologue where Midsize Sedan explains the origin of his name. The character’s seemingly so unaware that it’s a stupid name that it must hold some incredible meaning to him. I thought that’s where they were going when he tells Maddox his real name and some random parts of his backstory. But no, the conversation ends, and the question remains unresolved like the ghost of an elephant haunting the rooms of my mind.
This is almost a subsection to ‘Jobs’, because as we’ve established, everything the characters do and say is informed directly by their job, which determines the course of the action.
Let me say from the get-go that I think none of this is the fault of the actors, not even the children. They are terrible, it is known. All children in Shyamalan’s films are so unnatural-sounding and unsettlingly creepy, like a cross between child Macauley Caulkin, Winona Ryder, and adult Macauley Caulkin. The son, Trent, blinks so much it’s like he has the script written on the inside of his eyelids. Every word he says sounds like he just learnt the word today, and he’s surprised at his own mouth making the sound. But good kid actors are one in a thousand. I don’t expect them, they just pleasantly surprise me when they turn up.
Every adult actor in Old has shown that they can deliver a top-tier performance. Except maybe Ken Leung. Has Ken Leung done anything good? He must have. Anyway, if my time watching Uwe Boll movies has proven anything to me, it’s that you cannot blame actors for taking a paycheck sometimes, and there’s only so far you can take bad material. If I’d already received critical acclaim and cult pop culture status, and was offered a five-figure sum to go hang out on a beach for three months reading dumb dialogue, I’d already be on the plane out there.
Now that’s out of the way, god the dialogue is something special. This is Shyamalan at some of his best-worst screenwriting, maybe just a step ahead The Last Airbender. We’re talking more on the level of Split. He’s as afraid of the apostrophe as he ever was. He does the ‘as you know’, which is screenwriting poison. And everything else the characters say can be neatly divided into obviously funny or subtly funny. Nothing is not funny.
What’s really unique about Shyamalan’s dialogue is that his funniest lines are not funny in isolation. If I told you that Trent says, “I’ve decided I’m gonna marry her, and we are never gonna yell at each other, and we are never getting a divorce!”, that’s not very funny. What makes it funny is how totally inappropriate it is for the context of the scene. He’s just gotten Kara pregnant – keep in mind, mentally still a child – and thanks to the beach, she’s going through the entire pregnancy and giving birth in mere minutes. Everyone panics, and her mother in particular is losing her mind. One of the two trained medical professionals is suffering from increasingly severe schizophrenia, and the other barely has time to comprehend what’s happening. It’s one of the few times the movie sinks into abject horror as you imagine Kara’s child mind dealing with something this traumatic. Then as she’s going into labour, the music ramping up and the camera whirling around, we overhear Trent and his dad talking about how it happened. That’s funny enough, but then it escalates further and Trent, hysterical, blurts out “I’ve decided I’m gonna marry her, and we are never gonna yell at each other, and we are never getting a divorce!”.
Half of the audience I was watching the film with burst out laughing. It’s one of the funniest parts of the film, yet it’s one of the most upsetting in concept. One by one we’d all been broken by one line or another, and pretty much everyone was onboard with Old being a comedy by this scene. And sure, maybe that’s something a very autistic kid whose parents are going through a divorce might say in that moment. But that doesn’t make it not funny. So if Shyamalan didn’t want it to be funny, he should’ve cut the line or re-written it. But he didn’t, because he knows what he’s doing – he’s a comedy genius. To make matters worse, once it’s born, the baby immediately dies of neglect in Kara’s arms. Just saying that gives me a bit of a chill, in a way only things like Hereditary have. But at the time, I was still laughing at the marriage line.
Again, this isn’t new to Old – there’s precedence for this, even in Shyamalan’s best work. Midway through Unbreakable, Bruce Willis’ son pulls a gun on him in the kitchen, convinced that his dad is bulletproof. There’s so much tension and emotion inherent to that scenario. The tension of whether the kid’s going to pull the trigger, of whether Bruce Willis would even be hurt if he did. The tragedy that this kid wants so badly for his dad to stick around and be a superhero that he’s willing to pull a gun on him. And the even greater tragedy that Bruce Willis basically has to gaslight his kid, and this estranged couple have to pretend to be a family unit to prevent their son from shooting them. It’s fantastic in concept, but Shyamalan somehow turns the situation into a comedy. Maybe Shyamalan was thinking this would come across as sweetly tragic, like it’s ironic they’re using PSA phrasing for something so deadly. But irony is funny, my guy.
Then there’s Signs, which may be Shyamalan’s most overtly comedic film. At a crisis point well into the film, Mel Gibson is losing his mind, and his control over his family, as they watch aliens invade Earth on the news from their rural farmhouse. After preparing a meal consisting of every dish they were craving, his children ask him to say a prayer. Gibson, a former reverend who abandoned his faith after his wife was killed in a random car accident, refuses. His son tells him he hates him, his daughter starts to cry, and he flips. His crying mashed potato mouth is fairly funny, but you’re still overwhelmed by the incredible performance Gibson is putting on. He breaks down and embraces his children, and then… gold. I’ve never been so on the verge of tears, and then been yoinked back to laughter so rapidly. I suspect that Shyamalan put this in, thinking that the audience would sort of cry-laugh at it like it was a sweet family moment, but the speed and framing is so cartoonish that the whole scene is reframed as a joke building up to the punchline.
So much of the dialogue in Old is outright jokes, and I’m not being facetious here and saying, ‘this is so terrible, it’s a joke’, the characters are actually telling jokes. I think this is the best evidence you have that Shyamalan was actively trying to make a comedy, because even in a thriller, even if you didn’t find it funny, you would instinctively recognise it as a joke. The timing in the delivery, the pauses before and after, the performance of the actors. These things wouldn’t just happen, they’d have to be directed by Shyamalan this way. And sure, non-comedy films contain jokes, but they typically don’t fall slap-bang in the middle of tense moments.
Here’s where we should really talk about the doctor, and I think that’s fairly tricky to do. See, he’s schizophrenic, so he randomly blurts out nonsensical things at really inappropriate times with increasing frequency thanks to the ageing properties of the beach. Schizophrenia isn’t funny, we know this, not for its victims or their loved ones. In all seriousness, I’m not sure about this one. Maybe I’d feel differently if I had any first-hand knowledge of. But until then, that’s fuckin funny.
But no, this isn’t entirely on me. Like every other aspect of the film, Shyamalan framed and executed his schizophrenia in a deliberately comedic way. It’s mostly the timing that makes it funny. That doesn’t happen accidentally, that is precision comedic timing, something people who make comedies for a living cock up all the time. He ultimately ends up as the principal antagonist, as his schizophrenia makes him increasingly violent throughout the day, but the way he was written in the earlier scenes render him pretty non-threatening by the time we get there.
To cap off this section, I want to just some mention some things that may have sounded good in the first draft, or might appear to be good writing in isolation, but when you view them in a holistic way, knowing everything you know about the film, they become hilarious.
For instance, the final moments the family share with each other before the parents die is a non-stop riot. Prisca was always impressed with Maddox’s singing, so she sings for her in her final moments. The problem is, by this point she’s gone deaf, and can barely hear her. Yet she’s got this big, encouraging smile on her face, and I love to imagine that she can’t hear a thing but she doesn’t want to let her daughter down so she’s faking it like a good parent. It’s exacerbated by the fact that Alexa Swinton, who plays the younger Maddox, is a really impressive singer, but Thomasin McKenzie, fantastic actress as she is, does not have a strong voice. It’s somehow even funnier to me that Prisca has no idea that Maddox grew up to be a really bad singer, and Guy, who can hear everything, doesn’t have the heart to tell her.
Speaking of Guy, one of the last things he says is how beautiful the beach is. Did I mention earlier that he’s blind? How can he see the beach enough to remark upon its beauty when it’s the middle of the night, and his eyesight looked like this about several years ago? It’s so ironic that they’d have the deaf person listening to something, and the blind person looking at something, that it must be a joke. Otherwise, it’d be fucking stupid.
Imagine how tragic it would have been if a mother, who had so loved her child’s singing, now finds that far sooner than expected, she’ll never hear it again. Imagine if a father, in the last moments that his vision is fading, laments that he never took the time to sit and appreciate the natural beauty all around him while he could. All you can do is imagine that, because that would be dramatic and profound, so it has no place in a Shyamalan film.
People often speak of Shyamalan’s cinematography as a saving grace of his films. The writing, acting and editing may be godawful, they say, but it is well shot. First of all, that’s incorrect, the only saving grace of Shyamalan’s films is James Newton Howard. But this dialogue persisted into Old, where even the people that had misgivings about the film praised the way he captured natural beauty and light, and to be fair, he really did.
Not only that, but there are some glimmers of genuine excellence that shine through even the flames of the trash fire that is this film, and my semi-sarcastic insistence that it’s hilarious. In particular, this scene that occurs fairly soon after arriving on the beach – there’s no other word for it, it’s beautiful. The blocking, the split diopter, the subtle acting, the use of dolls as voodoo-esque caricatures of the other. It rocks. I also really love this way of showing the audience Prisca is deaf without telling us through dialogue.
But this changes absolutely nothing about my overall opinion, because I can’t ignore the dozens of other instances of bizarre or terrible cinematography. For Old, I’m fairly certain that Shyamalan had a spinning dart board like those ones you get at a fairground or something, and on it he had a kind of shot, and whatever it landed on, he had to film the scene that way. It’s the only way I can explain his choices. Like he chucked a dart and it landed on ‘swing around wildly whilst zooming in and out’. Then he winds up and takes another swing, and hits ‘Django Unchained-style zoom-ins’. The rest of it is maybe, ‘hey look, a lizard, let’s film it’.
Take for instance the decision to slowly and awkwardly zoom into the middle distance between the actors and the action, which he does I think twice, and it does not feel deliberate. Sam Esmail didn’t shove everybody into the corner of shots on Mr. Robot just for the hell of it, he did it to emphasise the isolation of his characters. When Shyamalan does it, it genuinely feels like the cameraman accidentally held down the zoom button.
Sometimes whole scenes are filmed out of focus, and in this case it’s clear he wanted to create an air of mystery about what’s happening to the children. Problem is, what’s happening to the children is the entire premise of the film. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t read the blurb. Later, Guy starts going blind and of course we wouldn’t understand that unless half of the climax is out of focus.
There’s also a really strange kind of male gaze throughout. A couple of times, the camera lingers for a long time on women undressing, before cutting back to the men watching them. And I say strange because both men are watching in this kind of detached state, and definitely not aroused in any way. I can’t figure out if Shyamalan just had a hard on, or if he was trying to make a point, because the point escapes me. The same thing came up in Lady in the Water and it’s less perplexing in that one, but still, I’ve got two nickels – it’s weird that it happened twice.
There’s also a consistent trend of the camera spinning throughout the scene, often to its detriment. Rather than altering the pace of the spin, to hold on certain characters as they speak, Shyamalan opts for a steady rotation that results in most of the lines being delivered offscreen while you watch the impassive faces of their listeners, or even worse, both the actors and the audience sit and wait while the camera catches up to the next speaker. The one-shot sequences in The Last Airbender were plagued with this kind of bullshit, as characters wave their hands around in threatening motions while everyone gets to their marks for the next action beat.
In its most egregious example, he actually ends a spinning shot with the inciting action that leads into the next scene – Prisca collapsing – happening entirely offscreen. Again, I’m pretty that a piece of machinery started glitching so the camera wouldn’t stop spinning, and Shyamalan just rolled with it, thinking it would be considered at best avant garde, at middling, hilarious, and at worst, deeply infuriating. Like this fuckin plastic door thing that keeps moving in front of the camera in After Earth.
Later on, once we find out that the hotel staff are the villains, you get this cartoonish lack of subtlety, like Shyamalan posted a question on Quora like ‘what film techniques can you use to create a sense of discomfort and unease in your viewers’ and the answers say ‘well, you can film at a dutch angle, or mix extreme close ups with shallow depth of field, maybe a wide angle lens, or you could colour the scene in post with an unnatural colour for what you’re showing’. And Shyamalan looks at these answers and goes, ‘cool!’ and we end up with this monstrosity.
Once again, we can turn to comedy to find similarities to Shyamalan’s style. Black Dynamite is filmed very poorly, with shots that should’ve been cut left in, microphones appearing in shots, and actors reading the stage directions as well as their lines. It’s fucking hilarious. Shyamalan likewise demonstrates a keen awareness of the sub-par and devotes his life to recreating it for comedic purposes.
Here are just a couple of weird Shyamalan camera things that would be deeply frustrating or uncomfortable if they weren’t hilarious: reverse shots that don’t match, which is bad if he didn’t shoot coverage, and worse if it’s a choice; staring directly down the lens with long silent stretches; bonus points if an entire conversation is filmed this way; FURTHER bonus points if it’s M Night Shyamalan staring down the lens; filming odd angles from a character’s perspective; blocking the image with something; not focusing on the subject of the scene; one shot fight sequences, although barely fight sequences because they don’t exactly do much in them; and finally, waaay too close extreme close up. This is now editing Drew speaking and I probably should’ve just kept five main ones, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut a single one of these examples out because they’re all equally deeply unsettling.
All these things and more are so obviously wrong in their intended situation and that’s what makes it funny. All comedy contains some element of transgression; some more, some less. While your more edgy comedians might use words to make jokes about 9/11 or the Holocaust, Shyamalan uses film language to tell his jokes, and he’s transgressing against the established best practices of filmmaking. It’s less on the level of Stanley Kubrick, and more on the level of Jimmy Carr.
So Universal, please stop marketing Shyamalan movies as horrors. They’re absurdist comedies. Please treat them as such. Even if he comes to you and says “hey, look guys I’ve made you the next Hereditary”, just smile, nod, and cue up the comedy trailer music. I genuinely think this could be his third wind. He already had a second wind with Split but he cocked that up with Glass. Make a career shift to comedy and I guarantee he’ll rake in the cash. But this isn’t entirely down to the creators.
Alright so hopefully I’ve made a solid case that Shyamalan movies are funny. But the big question is, are they intentionally funny, or unintentionally funny? Because if something’s unintentionally funny, it means it’s bad, but if it’s intentionally funny then it’s good, just not in the way you expected. You can usually tell when something was meant to be funny and when something wasn’t, so dropping all sarcasm for a second, do Shyamalan’s movies contain more instances of intentional comedy than unintentional comedy?
At first I thought it would be as straightforward as counting up every time I laughed in a Shyamalan film and tallying up the ones that felt intentional and the ones that didn’t. When you do that, the results skew way in favour of intentional, seemingly proving my point, but as always you have to look a little deeper *Inception noise*.
For instance, some of his films contain laughs that are almost entirely intentional, like Signs. Behold. Signs is low-key one of the best deadpan comedies ever made. And on the flip-side, Lady in the Water is almost entirely unintentional laughs. With the exception of this gold, it’s all more like this. The Happening naturally has the most laughs, but also the most question marks over whether it was intentional. Then you get Unbreakable and Sixth Sense which, apart from one or two moments like Bruce Willis calling a guy a ‘cheesedick’, just aren’t funny at all.
But notably, those two are his first films. And if you look at his last three before Old, namely The Visit, Split, and Glass, all of the jokes are distinctly intentional. In all three, I only laughed once when I felt like I wasn’t being asked to. So it seems like yeah, Shyamalan had two great thriller ideas, then after a couple of really earnest mystery films, realised that comedy was his true calling and embraced it wholeheartedly.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you that Shyamalan intended for this film to be received as a comedy. He hasn’t said anything to that effect in interviews, and the majority of his prior films were thrillers with supernatural horror tropes. All the marketing implies that Old would be the same. To that I say, don’t discount the power you have as an active participant in how you absorb content. You owe it to yourself to maximise the enjoyment you’re going to get out of any given activity, and the peak enjoyment you can get out of Old is in watching it as a comedy. All you gain from insisting Old is a thriller is disappointment, but embracing its comedy brings you wild, unabashed joy.
There’s so much precedence for this kind of genre reassignment, the most notable being The Room. Setting aside the many, many rumours and conspiracy theories about the film, the prevailing consensus is that Tommy Wiseau intended for his film to be taken seriously as a drama, and only grew to embrace the comedy side after a cult following arose predicated on that interpretation. On the one hand, yes, it’s only funny because it’s bad. On the other hand, bad rarely results in ‘entertaining’. Think how many Nicholas Cage films there are. That guy is prolific. If every one of his bad performances were entertaining, he’d be the greatest comedian of our generation. But there’s only like six of them, so he’s not. The type of bad that becomes more entertaining than good is hard to predict, harder still to replicate, and nigh impossible to define in precise terms. It’s like Gen-Z humour or the tides. You can’t explain that.
Or, as a flipped example, the internet collectively decided that the romance sci-fi Passengers was actually a horror film, and better for it. Numerous people made alternative edits of the film that simply changed the order of events shown so that Jennifer Lawrence was the confused protagonist, and Chris Pratt was a mystery man hiding a secret, and it’s honestly a pretty fantastic movie like that right up until the ending. In particular, the scene where J-Law’s character finds out the truth is genuinely chilling in that version.
Bizarrely, Shyamalan’s movies have people on the fence about whether or not they are the genre they obviously are. Take The Happening, which sparked debate still going on to this day about whether it was a dreadful horror movie, or a side-splitting satire, or a bit of both. After all, stuff can be two things. Comedy has been an intrinsic part of horror for decades – just take a look at Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream. Even in the modern day, Joss Whedon knowingly walked that tightrope in Cabin in the Woods without necessarily falling into one category or the other.
Genre conventions are fluid, and the audience needs to willingly accept whatever genre its creators are intending. Think of it like a lens that you’re watching a piece of entertainment through. You have a collection of glasses and the pair you wear can alter your viewing experience. Balloons are scary. Murder is hilarious. Everyone wants Chris Pratt and James Corden in more movies. Choose the pair of glasses that will maximise your happiness. M Night Shyamalan is a comedy genius.
Thanks for watching this dumb exercise in sarcasm. Yes, I know I was skirting around a more serious discussion of death of the author, and authorial intent, and the complicated nature of satire, but I honestly just couldn’t be bothered to go into that much detail. If you like videos like this, like and subscribe, and if you want to see what the rest of the UDS have been up to, check out our sister channels. Au revoir!