The Happening: Respectful awe

The Happening directed by M. Night ShyamalanThe Happening directed by M. Night Shyamalan

The Happening directed by M. Night ShyamalanFollowing the inanity of the borderline train wreck that was 2006’s Lady in the Water, writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan rebounded in a very big way with his next film, 2008’s The Happening. His contribution to the type of eco-horror film that was all the rage in the 1960s and ’70s — I’m thinking of such films as 1963’s The Birds, 1972’s Frogs, 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders and 1978’s The Swarm … not to mention the little-seen 1976 Spanish classic Who Can Kill a Child? — the film seems to have divided his fan base and resulted in a bona fide critical flop of sorts. Indeed, the woman who I sit next to at work, a big admirer of film auteur Shyamalan, hated the film, although she professes a love for Lady in the Water, a picture that I found to be both ridiculous and downright stupid. Go figure. THIS is why there is both vanilla AND chocolate out there, folks!

In the film in question, what is at first perceived to be a bioterrorist attack occurs in NYC’s Central Park, where droves of people are compelled to commit suicide in horrendous fashions. We then zoom in on Philadelphia schoolteacher Elliot Moore (very well played by the hugely likable Mark Wahlberg), who, along with his wife Alma (the pretty and kooky Zooey Deschanel), best friend and fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his adorable daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), leaves the city by train after a similar attack occurs in their vicinity. Eventually, Julian strikes off on his own to search for his wife in Princeton, NJ, leaving his daughter in charge of the Moores, while it soon becomes apparent that this is NOT an instance of bioterror that has been afflicting the entire Northeast after all, but rather, a bizarre case of nature gone amok. The very trees are emitting a chemical — perhaps in an instance of self-defense — that has started to compel humans to do themselves in! (This action does not strike me at this particular moment as being all that far-fetched, afflicted as I am today with allergy symptoms brought on by tree pollen!) The Moores and Jess head into the wilds of the Pennsylvania countryside to escape the widespread violence, only to fetch up at the home of an isolated woman, one Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) … a demented biddy who, in retrospect, strikes the viewer as a warm-up for the demented oldsters in Shyamalan’s 2015 film The Visit. But even this isolated locale does not seem to be a safe haven against the arboreal threat that has suddenly arisen…

Amazingly, The Happening was nominated for no less than four Golden Raspberry Awards — for Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Wahlberg), Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. In Empire magazine’s list of the 50 Worst Films of All Time, the film came in at the #8 spot! Are these people kidding?!?! Have they never seen such films as Blood Freak, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, The Astro-Zombies, Horror of the Blood Monsters, The Beast of Yucca Flats and The Worm Eaters? THESE are truly horrendous and ineptly made pictures, worthy of anybody’s contempt. But The Happening? Really? This film is expertly made and well acted by its cast of appealing players. It also looks terrific on the screen, is loaded with any number of suspenseful moments, is laced with pleasing bits of humor (my favorite: Elliot talking in fear to what turns out to be a plastic plant), and is capable of stunning the viewer by dint of a pleasing number of shock moments (such as the sight of one man offering himself up to the giant cats in the Philadelphia zoo, a young woman casually sticking a rather long hairpin into her neck, and the truly awesome spectacle of a half dozen construction workers blithely diving off the top of a building to their doom). The film is nowhere near as bloody as the 2001 Japanese stunner Suicide Club (how could it be?) but yet manages to startle and impress, nevertheless. And if the film does not provide one of Shyamalan’s patented twist endings, it yet contrives to wind up on a note of not-so-unexpected pessimism. Like the Hitchcock film referenced above, a clear-cut explanation for the bizarre events in the film is never vouchsafed, and we are left to be content with these words of wisdom from the Wahlberg character:

There are forces at work beyond our understanding. To be a good scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of Nature.

And perhaps not so coincidentally, “respectful awe” was the feeling that this viewer was left with by the conclusion of this hugely impressive and effective film. Very much recommended…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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4 comments

  1. I kinda got stuck wondering what rationale would make LADY IN THE WATER seem like a good movie.

    What’s with the “killer tree” theme on the site right now, huh? First we have Kimo, then the apple trees in WIZARD OF OZ, and now THE HAPPENING! You’re making me scared to go for my daily walk in the part, you guys!

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