The Happening is a mild return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, that filmmaker infamous now for his steady decline in film quality, rather than for his twist endings. The man who was once compared to Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock is now compared more often to Uwe Boll. The Happening, however, simplifies things by offering Shyamalan a premise free of plot complication, focused almost exclusively on delivery of mood. It’s a quick exercise in style, and it’s mostly a success.
What plot there is (again, this is pretty simple) concerns a strange sickness that overcomes populations quickly. People lose higher brain function (lucid thought), then lower brain function (motor control), and then the will to live altogether. Example? A keeper at a lion cage offers his arms to the beasts in lieu of T-bone steaks.
The first twenty minutes work the best, as Shyamalan leaps at the chance to showcase violence for the first real time in his career. People willingly leap to their deaths, stab themselves, and, in one darkly hilarious sequence, a gun passes hands from person to person. There’s a sadistic streak to Shyamalan’s delight in finding bizarre ways for people to commit suicide, but that comes with the territory. I was reminded a bit of Stephen King, who, commenting on his own The Stand, said, “I got a chance to scrub out the whole human race, and it was fun!”
That the rest of the picture doesn’t match the opening for dread and interest is probably inevitable. Shyamalan has to give us some main characters whose problems will seem infinitesimally small compared to the world ending, and he will send them on a trek for survival. Mark Wahlberg fits the Shymalan archetype of confused-if-well-meaning middle-aged white guy, although it was tough for this viewer to accept the former Funky Bunch member as a suburban school teacher.
Smaller characters are allowed moments to shine (Frank Collison as a neurotic gardener is a highlight), but this film is about its mood. I haven’t seen such a strong atmosphere of apocalyptic dread since Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. James Newton Howard’s score and the camerawork combine to paint a eulogy for the human race, and the subject of eco-horror feeds off contemporary unease (as do The Ruins and The Last Winter), even if the film doesn’t have any real message of conservation or humility before nature.
Currently, the film stands at 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics eager to pounce on the corpse of M. Night Shyamalan (although Roger Ebert and Manolha Dargis were also receptive to its quiet spell). I haven’t really liked Shyamalan since he ended Signs with one of the great all-time movie copouts, but the man knows how to make movies. Here, he takes a simple premise, races through it, and leaves us with ninety minutes of creepy mood, creative violence, and the suggestion that nature’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat.