The badness is back, y’all…
Who else thought (or thinks) M. Night Shyamalan was going to be the next Hitchcock? I sure did. Night likes macguffins and making cameos in his own films, plus the camerawork in Signs was very silent film-esque, with characters reacting to unseen horror. Even The Village grows on a lot of viewers once they see what Night was going for. Very clever and very entertaining.
Then there’s the 2008 film, The Happening. It’s also entertaining…for different reasons.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The movie opens in New York on an idyllic spring day. Everyone’s milling around Central Park talking, playing sports, and reading. A wind blows through, then everyone stops dead in their tracks, starts walking backwards, and then kills themselves in various ways. A girl stabs herself with her hair chopstick. Construction workers jump off buildings. Chaos ensues.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is busy teaching his high school science class. They’ve all heard about the mysterious events in New York, and they’re speculating as to what it could be. Well, Elliot’s doing most of the speculating while his class sits comatose. “Come on, guys,” Elliot says. “Take an interest in science.”
Everyone thinks it’s a terrorist attack, so the schools are closed. Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel) decide to take a train up to his co-worker, Julian’s (John Leguizamo) mom’s house out in the country, and Alma’s all nervous and guilty because she and a co-worker, Joey had tiramisu when she was supposed to be working late. She’s jumpier about Elliot finding out than about whatever it is that’s driving them out of Philly.
After a very crowded train ride the passengers are let off at a tiny town called Filbert because the engineers lost contact with everyone, whoever that is, and don’t know what else to do. Our group branches out; Julian ends up going off in a Jeep to Princeton to find his wife, leaving his daughter, Jess (Ashlynn Sanchez) with Alma and Elliot.
Predictably, the movie gets worse before things get better, and by worse I mean they get ironically laughable. Sure, it’s a horror movie, and there are more dead bodies. Like, a lot more. And it can be disturbing, because suicide is never a pleasant thing. There’s also a clip of a zoo employee getting his arms torn off by a lion. It’s obviously fake but it’s distressing, especially since Elliot and his fellow train passengers watch the clip on their phones while they’re in the restaraunt.
The plot gets weirder, too. Elliot has a thing about muttering probabilities to himself when he gets stressed, which keeps any audience suspense at bay. He, Alma, and Jess take shelter in a model home with two teenagers they meet up with and Elliot tries to butter up a plastic plant so they can use the bathroom in peace. Yeah, that’s a real bit in the movie, and Mark Wahlberg’s face as he delivers his lines is a study in incredulity.
Also laughably weird is the assortment of characters Elliot, Alma, and Jess encounter, not to mention almost every car seeming to be a Jeep or a Chrysler. Can we say, “Product placement?”
Anywhoo, there’s a confused private who likes saying, “Cheese and crackers.” There are two recluses who don’t take kindly to visitors no matter how normal they might be. Elliot badly sings “Black Water” through the door at one of them, which is ironic coming from the guy who once brought us “Good Vibrations.”
There’s also a fellow officially known in the credits as “Nursery Owner” (Frank Collison), but most viewers call him the Hot Dog Guy. He and his wife, solely credited as “Nursery Owner’s Wife” (Victoria Clark) really like hot dogs. And talking to their plants as if they’re children. Hot Dog Guy thinks the plants are releasing toxins because humans give off bad vibes, which is why people are killing themselves.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s in The Happening, but it’s a film that deserves to be discovered in all its mixed-up, limply presented carnage.
What makes the movie miss the mark? I think the reason is that it shows the audience too much hand before any questions can form or suspense builds. Every single time something bad is about to occur the movie clues us in. It also tells us what to think. When Alma says, “It makes you kill yourself. Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil that could be invented,” there’s really nowhere else to go but down.
And when they say things like, “Whatever’s happening, it’s not happening about ninety miles from here,” or “Hot dogs get a bad rap. They got a cool shape. Protein. You like hot dogs, right?” it’s hard not to laugh or at least pull faces because these are actual lines in the movie delivered with the utmost gravity. I defy anyone to watch this film and not quote it afterwards. Bonus points to those who can do it with a straight face.
Speaking of straight faces, the acting is terrible for the most part. I don’t know what went wrong here; maybe people just didn’t believe in the project or they were miscast or Night told them to act badly on purpose, but it’s really unusual for this cast, all of whom have respectable track records.
Plus the film looks hilariously awful. There are shots with empty space in the middle and faces half cut off. There’s another shot, of, and I’m not kidding, the back of Alma’s coat flapping in the wind which lasts for a good five seconds, or at least it feels like it.
Design was apparently the thing. Night called The Happening The Best B-Movie You’ll Ever See, but the problem was that audiences at the time of its release didn’t know what to make of it. Reviews were mixed to negative because it was tough to say if Night was serious or not.
In the ensuing years, people’s opinions seem to have softened toward The Happening. It still has an eighteen percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but we’ve had time to see it for what it is: a terribly great (or greatly terrible) B-movie.
For more badness, click here. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow with another (slightly worse) so-bad-it’s-good tour-de-force…
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