The name “M. Night Shyamalan” immediately makes most people think “twist ending”. It might also make them think “gimmicky” and “that director whose career looked really promising but has since gone right down the toilet.” Since ditching his traditional plot twists, Shyamalan has already had one flop on his hands in the shape of Lady in the Water, and things don’t look hopeful for The Happening either. It wasn’t screened for critics prior to its release, and trying to find a central London cinema that was showing it on its opening day proved far more difficult than I’d expected. It’s obviously unfair to judge audience attendance based on a daytime screening on a weekday, but things don’t look good right now.
Which is a shame, because The Happening isn’t actually a terrible movie. It’s not an entirely successful one, either, but it’s not terrible. It’s watchable, possibly even more than once.
The film opens with the first occurrence of the titular “happening”. In Central Park, a crowd of people randomly freezes on the spot, then some of them start walking slowly backwards before they all take turns killing themselves. It’s chilling, in a way reminiscent of Stephen King’s Cell. (Although the causes of the disasters in The Happening and in Cell could hardly be more different – but I’ll get to that later.) Suddenly, other happenings are, er, happening, all over New York. The authorities try to evacuate the area, suspecting a terrorist attack of some kind, but the happenings are becoming more and more frequent, and more and more spread out. Something very, very weird is going on.
The film’s strength is its evocation of the utter panic that grips the city, and indeed the media and the rest of the country, when the suicide epidemic starts to spread. There are also some brilliantly creepy moments threaded throughout the film – The Happening, despite featuring lots and lots of dead people, rarely focuses on the gore, instead just letting you piece things together for yourself, cutting away at the essential moment or just giving you a glimpse of a body, which is far more effective than lingering over blood and guts.
The problem comes when the film gets more specific. The Happening follows a young couple, Elliot and Alma Moore, played by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel respectively, whose marriage is starting to become rocky. As they flee the city, they end up taking custody of a friend’s 8-year-old daughter, and as young couples in these sorts of traumatic circumstances are wont to do, they end up rediscovering one another and falling in love all over again, catalysed by their having to take responsibility for a child and not just for themselves. (Blech!)
That sort of story arc is sappy enough as it is, but there’s something decidedly off with the performances of both Wahlberg and Deschanel. The excessive amount of sudden close-ups on faces doesn’t help – Wahlberg and Deschanel are attractive enough, and she has eyes that look like the entire world, but it adds a layer of melodrama that wasn’t necessary given the amount of over-acting that’s going on. Although no-one should be immune from criticism on this front, I suspect Wahlberg will take the brunt of the blame for the bad acting, mostly because he insists of putting on a strange voice for most of the film. It’s a sort of childishly curious tone, slightly higher than his normal speaking voice, raising slightly in inflection as he gets to the end of his sentences. Several times I caught myself thinking that the dialogue in a particular scene was terrible, then replaying it in my head and realising that it wasn’t that bad – it was Wahlberg’s delivery that had turned it bizarre. Often, it would be unclear whether or not something was intentionally funny, because Wahlberg’s delivery was ambiguous, and Deschanel really wasn’t much better with her constant look of wide-eyed confusion. Believing that the two of them were ever in a real relationship is difficult, to say the least.
And yet, in spite of the terrible acting and over-editing, somehow The Happening was still captivating enough to keep my attention right up until its final moments. Sure, sometimes I was just waiting to see just how much further Wahlberg could quirk his eyebrow, or imagining that he was still playing his character from I Heart Huckabees, but there was something creepy enough about the suicide epidemic that managed to survive even the vague, confused not-quite-explanation of what had caused it. (With The Ruins out next week too, it would appear to be the summer when plants attacked.) Sure, it’s a little didactic, but at a time when we’ve never been more concerned with either terrorist attacks or our own carbon emissions and destruction of the planet, this kind of scaremongering is pretty much to be expected. And after all, most good horror movies draw on the fears of the age, turning them monstrous and, if we’re lucky, offering a way to kill them off. The Happening doesn’t do that, but that, too, is appropriate and zeitgeisty; most of the really good horror movies of the last five years have had unhappy endings.
Maybe I’m being uncharacteristically generous here, but I don’t think The Happening was all that bad. It’s fun, and sometimes funny, and undeniably creepy in places; Mark Wahlberg is hideously miscast in anything that’s not an outright comedy, so he was a mistake here, but the presence of John Leguizamo makes up for most cinematic crimes. M. Night Shyamalan’s career trajectory might be taking a nosedive, but anyone who enjoyed Signs should enjoy this, too.