Quickly Got Old
It started out as a rather good European graphic novel, Sandcastle, written by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. It’s uncomfortable and unnerving, and was taken by an American director to make as a film. Unfortunately that director was M Night Shyamalan, whose career, with the best will in the world, can be called ‘patchy’.
Too bad – it was an interesting idea. Holidaymakers end up on a beach that ages people the longer they stay on it. Children hit puberty, couples age and die, but it’s only their cells that mature, not their brains. In Shyamalan’s hands the film ‘Old’ becomes another Twilight Zone-style story told in stilted, often hilariously bad dialogue.
‘You don’t know me,’ says one character. ‘I curate exhibits for museums. I’m telling you this because I want you to trust me.’ When a body is washed up onshore another character cries, ‘He must have gone unconscious in the ocean!’
Shyamalan makes 1950s-style B-movies, but unlike the directors of those (with the exception of William Castle) he’s something of an egomaniac, insisting on writing as well as directing (something he shouldn’t do) and often appearing onscreen (something he definitely shouldn’t do).
But if he can’t write or act he at least recognises good hooks, and probably gives great meetings. When America greeted ‘The Sixth Sense’ rapturously, writers everywhere facepalmed themselves. The problem was simple; we collectively guessed the twist within thirty seconds of the film’s start, with Bruce Willis’s appearance. He’s wearing a shoddy hairpiece so it’s a flashback, therefore when he’s shot he dies, and in the rest of the film he’s a ghost. We watch for signs that anyone else is interacting with him and find none. A one-trick pony nicely carried through, but why didn’t audiences spot such an obvious trick? Were they really that easy to hoodwink?
Shyamalan’s career pinballed through other unsatisfying surprise-ending films, earning healthy box office figures even after he stumbled with a series of increasingly conservative fantastical tales like ‘The Last Airbender’. This was unfortunate in the UK (not a major market for him, but still) as the word ‘bender’ had an entirely different connotation. So when characters said things like, ‘My father was a bender and my son is too,’ everyone fell about laughing.
The Guardian said, ‘It is incredible how awful the once-feted director M Night Shyamalan has become and how he is still allowed to make big-budget films.’ The only reason why it’s of interest is that some of Shyamalan’s films could have been saved with decent scripts. The idea of ‘Old’ is intriguing, but nothing in it works. What was needed was a bit of intellectual rigour. Too many absurdities happen at once, nothing is thought through and the whole thing is topped with a ridiculously over-complicated, under-cooked denouement.
The puzzle remains; is the director driven by ego alone or does he genuinely think he’s writing good stories? Why does no-one stand up to him and point out how terrible they are? I guess he can point out the dollar bottom line to them and rest his case.
Back in the days of schlocky double bills Shyamalan would have been a whizz. I may not have been able to see them at the time but I caught up with everything from ‘War of the Colossal Beast’ to ‘I Married a Monster from Outer Space’, still a firm favourite.
(sample dialogue from ‘War of the Colossal Beast’)
Policeman: The man who made this footprint must be around sixty feet high.
Wife: But my husband is sixty feet high!
I loved all those films set in small desert towns where girls in sports cars scream when they spot something in the road, the kind of towns that have scientists’ labs in them. ‘The Vast of Night’ is a great low budget modern take on the idea, and well worth catching. Mr Shyamalan take note!
All suggestions for great schlocky old movies accepted.