Please note that this is not a review for the far more extensive ‘director’s cut’ release of The Happening which will be on sale a month later (see end).
M. Night Shyamalan’s critically-lambasted tale of a suicide-apocalypse engulfing the North-eastern United States is a genuinely creepy sci-fi/horror tract in the best style of John Wyndham. It’s not a perfect movie – very few are, and casting Mark ‘Wooden’ Wahlberg in the lead is never going to do a film any favours, but it is certainly not the Godzilla-sized turkey propagated in much of the critical opinion that has demonised it.
Wahlberg’s high school science teacher finds himself fleeing an apparent terrorist attack in New York. The film’s eponymous ‘event’ takes the form of seeming mass-hypnosis, as hordes of civilians stop dead in their tracks, take a few steps back and calmly look for the quickest possible way to end their own lives.
A high-rise building site offers up a rain of construction workers; a cop, calmly chatting to a cab driver he knows in a traffic jam, suddenly pulls out his gun and shoots himself. The cab driver and other citizens queue up for the gun he dropped so that they can blow their own brains out…
Wahlberg and his possibly cuckolding wifey – a delightfully scatty Zooey Deschanel – manage to get on a train to Philadelphia with teaching colleague John Leguizamo and his young daughter, as news reports everywhere begin to speculate that the suicidal phenomenon might be too widespread and well co-ordinated to be a terrorist attack. A new theory emerges that the plants and vegetation of the Northeast are mounting a sustained and systematic chemical attack on the human race in order to rid themselves of their greatest enemy and predator. Unfortunately, by this point the train to Philadelphia has lost contact with the rest of civilisation and dumped Wahlberg & Co. right in the middle of plant-strewn Pennsylvania…
The Happening is Shyamalan’s first ‘R’-rated movie, and the first of his works to do a little more showing and a little less telling. That notwithstanding, the presentation of the disaster is typically elliptical, with plenty of Hitchcock-style foot-acting and off-screen disaster represented in sound effects and reported action. In most cases, this is simply how MNS likes to build suspense, as little of what is reported lies beyond the film’s budgetary scope. Indeed Shyamalan seems to be shoe-horning in a level of grue at the behest of commercial interests, including the now-obligatory kid-killing. That said, any horror fan will have seen a lot worse than the suicides in The Happening, which has far more in common with Signs than the latest zombie epic.
Quite why Wahlberg pitches his voice at Mickey Mouse level throughout the movie is a mystery to rival the suicides – upping the vocal register of the leading men is a cheap trick to diffuse the scariness of horror content, used to rather damaging effect in films like Something Wicked This Way Comes and JurassicPark. Wahlberg is not the most facially-expressive actor in the world, and he needs a full vocal range to off-set that.
Deschanel is both winsome and zany enough to end up in a Woody Allen movie at some point; her character and motivations here are as unthreatening as Wahlberg’s falsetto, and this consolidates Shyamalan’s apparent efforts to leaven the tone of the film as he did rather more adroitly with comedy siblings Gibson and Phoenix in Signs.
The ancillary characters are typically quirky: Leguizamo has pathos and humour as the maths teacher who tries to comfort with hopeful percentages of survival; Ashlyn Sanchez has a lot less to do as the scared child than Haley Joel Osmont did in The Sixth Sense, but does it well; Frank Collison and Victoria Clark are engaging comic relief as the plant-loving, hot-dog obsessed nursery owners that accompany Wahlberg & Co part of the way on their journey…
Only towards the film’s conclusion and the hospitality offered by misanthropic Betty Buckley does the tone of The Happening begin to honour the set-up. That notwithstanding, the core idea behind the film is ingenious and paranoiac enough to offer many chills, and some of the most disturbing suicide-imagery is amongst the least-gruesome. Shyamalan is never going to be a slasher hack, and if the viral criticism of The Happening turns him fully back to his core values of building suspense with character and imagination, then it was a painful lesson worth going through.
Even so, the film is not to be shoved away as a failed experiment, and nor should the great glory in which Shyamalan began his career stop him making these medium-budget, enjoyable ‘B’-movies. If he can make me like a film with Mark Wahlberg in it, he ain’t finished yet.
This ‘vanilla’ 1-disc release comes bereft of commentaries or extras of any kind (except a descriptive audio track for the blind).
Film:Extras: What extras?
The Happening (vanilla edition) is released on DVD in the US on October 7th. The UK DVD release date was not known at the time of writing.
The Director’s Cut of The Happening (November 7th) Many extras will be included in the ‘director’s cut’, released a month later. These will include:
The Hard Cut (9 min)I Hear You Whispering (9 min)A Day for Night (7min)Elements of a Scene (10 min)Visions of The Happening: A Making of documentary (12min)Deleted scenes with introductions from M. Night Shyamalan (30 minutes according to the BBFC)Gag reel (2mins 41s)
…along with a commentary and an “extended version too shocking to show in cinemas” and a digital copy of the film.