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“The Happening”

by Bob Garver

            “The Happening” is the latest film from director M. Night Shyamalan.  It is also a film starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel.  It is also a horror movie released in the height of blockbuster season.  But it will mainly go down in history as a Shyamalan film.  Unfortunately, it will also go down as one of his worst.   

Shyamalan’s films have much in common with each other, and this has become a mixed blessing.  On the positive side, he does many things well, so audiences know they’re getting competently-made films.  On the negative side, the shared elements make his films more predictable.  After the failure of his last film, 2006’s “Lady in the Water” that film Shyamalan has apparently decided to change things up. 

Like many of Shyamalan’s films, “The Happening” is the story of an unexplained phenomenon.  But the phenomenon itself is a deviation.  What is Happening is that massive numbers of people all over the Northeast are suddenly feeling an urge to kill themselves.  One minute they’re chatting in Central Park.  The next minute they’re freezing up.  The next minute… is fatal.  Which is a nice way of saying that they off themselves in a variety of disturbing ways. 

This phenomenon is a deviation for Shyamalan because it’s much more violent than usual.  Shyamalan’s films are usually rated PG-13, but “The Happening” is a hard R for its gruesome death scenes.  I don’t think moving away from the PG-13 rating is something Shyamalan needed to change.  One thing that draws audiences to Shyamalan’s films is the fact that they are frightening, but generally family-friendly.  He won’t be able to count on those audiences for this one.  But at least he’s committed to an adult audience.  A lesser director would have trimmed just enough of their otherwise R-rated film to trick families into seeing a movie inappropriate for little ones. 

Aside from the Happening itself, the plot of “The Happening” concerns a small group of people trying to protect themselves.  Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Deschanel) live in Philadelphia.  They hear about a “terrorist attack” in New York and decide to get out of the city.  They meet up with their friend Julian (John Leguazamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and board a train to Harrisburg.  Don’t get too excited, Harrisburg is mainly in the movie for the Three Mile Island references.  Besides, the characters never make it there. 

The train stops in Filbert, PA and everyone is stranded.  Julian leaves Jess with Elliot and Alma so he can go off to look for his wife in New Jersey.  The rest of the movie is Elliot, Alma, and Jess trying to avoid the Happening.  They think they’re safe in a small town in the country, but it turns out rural areas are just as dangerous as big cities, if not more so. 

The cause of the Happening is hard to swallow.  Even if you believe that there is a chemical that makes people kill themselves, it’s hard to believe that it is spread the way it is in the film.  Also, the methods of self-killing are too convoluted.  Some of them involve complicated machinery and knots.  If these people are so crazy and helpless, how do they have the presence of mind to do all this?  Because this movie needs cool death scenes, that’s why. 

Shyamalan still does silent suspense very well.  A character will be alone, and things will be way too quiet.  There may be a lot of negative space in the shot where you think something could pop out.  90% of the time, nothing happens.  But you’ll jump out of your seat at the other 10%. 

I want to compliment Shyamalan’s skill at silent suspense, because I can’t compliment him on much else in “The Happening.”  The action is nonsensical, the dialogue is stiff, and most distractingly, the acting is horrible.  The stars ham it up and bit players keep trying to steal the scene.  Overall, Shyamalan should not be happy with “The Happening.”

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