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M. Night Shyamalan Doesn’t Make Horror Movies

The director dismisses genre trappings while discussing his process behind making ‘Old.’
Old Shyamalan Horror Movie
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on July 23rd, 2021

M. Night Shyamalan’s Old grapples with a common aspect of life (and death) through a horrific lens. The movie follows a vacationing family that winds up on a secluded beach where everyone starts aging rapidly. Shyamalan doesn’t want to just tell a story about getting old, though. He wants to illustrate the absolute terror of that experience.

It’s a familiar idea found in his previous features The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village. And there’s no denying they’re all scary. But are they horror films? In a featurette promoting Old, Shyamalan says they aren’t. As he explains:

I don’t ever think I make horror. Ever…Horror has an almost sense that that’s the destination. This is meant for us to come out on the other side with a belief system stronger for it.”

While this feels akin to the recent “elevated horror” discussion, Shyamalan has always held this perspective throughout his career. Rather than a genre label, horror — whether ghosts or aliens or angry plants — is a tool used to create an experience in a character’s journey. It pushes his characters through the story, but they always end up, as he says, “on the other side.”

Shyamalan is more focused on their emotional journey. He explains while discussing his writing process in the video:

“What I keep trying to do as I write is to imagine the very worst things, and would I survive that as a human being, emotionally.”

He focuses on the lasting emotional impacts of traumatic experiences. These stories aren’t just about physical survival, but mental fortitude, as well.

While dealing with such difficult and upsetting subject matter, Shyamalan also adopts a rather positive outlook to create these uniquely caring movies. Whether they work or not, they always reveal just how deeply he cares about his characters. That empathy comes from his own personal experiences. In the featurette, he explains:

“These movies, the original movies that are mine, they represent where I am at each moment. ‘Unbreakable’ represents where I was. ‘Split’ represents where I was. ‘The Visit,’ you name it. And then my father and mother who are getting, you know, very old and what do I feel about that? When I go there, the roles have switched.”

Each movie is a piece of Shymalan’s own memory, capturing a specific moment in time that is both deeply personal to him and also universally understood by an audience. He taps into collective anxieties about death and grief that make the movies’ horrific images even scarier

While Old does share quite a few thematic similarities with Shyamalan’s previous works, this movie has a much larger scope. In an interview with FlickeringMyth, he explains that the beach offered him a new opportunity to play with scope. Many of his movies are set in or around Philadelphia with cramped settings, which allow him to get a microscopic view of a family. He says about the difference:

“Normally it’s very contained, in a house. And dark. And I love that. I could endlessly tell stories at the dinner table, in my mind. But this idea of doing a thriller out on the beach, that has that scope…to have this opportunity of telling something outside, still contained, it was a rare, exciting opportunity.”

For Shyamalan, the change of environment marks a renewal. In the featurette, he says:

“I want to start over, I want to come up with a new style.”

Old is now in theaters. Check out our review here.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)