June 13, 2018
10 Years Later, ‘The Happening’ Deserves to be Recognized as a B-Movie Classic
It’s the 10th anniversary of M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Happening! Many consider this to be one of Shyamalan’s worst films, but maybe it’s time to finally celebrate the film for what it really is: a weird, funny B-movie. A film that should be embraced for its silliness, rather than hated.
Ten years ago, The Happening graced movie screens across the land, and effectively sidelined the once-promising career of M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan would eventually bounce back, but following the misunderstood The Village, the not-well-liked The Lady and the Water, and then the confounding The Happening, he ended up in director’s jail. So much so that when it came time for him to helm the big Will Smith sci-fi flick After Earth, studio execs not-so-subtly suggested Shyamalan’s name be left off the trailers and promotional material.
But here’s the thing: The Happening is wonderful. Okay, yes, in the grand scheme of things, The Happening is not what you’d call a good movie – but maybe that was the point. Around the time of the film’s release, Shyamalan told several interviewers that he saw The Happening as a B-movie. “It’s a B-movie,” he told CNN. “This is the best B-movie you will ever see, that’s it. That’s what this is. If there’s other things that stick to your ribs as you walk out, that’s great, but it’s supposed to be, you know, zombies eating flesh.”
Some thought this was a case of Shyamalan trying to deflect criticism. That he realized the film was a dud and was trying to cover himself by saying he intended it to be a big cheesy cornball of a flick. But what if he wasn’t fibbing? What if The Happening really is supposed to be a B-movie? And not just any B movie, but the best B movie you will ever see.
The Happening’s main scenario is firmly rooted in the B-movies of the atomic age, when bugs, or brains, or giant eyes, usually created in gray, drab labs by gray, drab scientists, would wreak havoc. Shyamalan is also drawing on things like The Birds, a film whose plot – when you strip away all the brilliance of Hitchcock – is rather silly.
Now, as The Happening hits its 10th birthday, it’s time to embrace the movie for what it really is: an intentionally goofy, highly entertaining B-movie that should be celebrated for its own stupid charms rather than mercilessly mocked and scorned.
A Generally Unnerving Opening Scene
The Happening grows more and more dumb as it unfolds, but before we get to that, Shyamalan pulls a fake-out by presenting a generally unnerving opening sequence. We see two women sitting on a bench in Central Park. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, and the park is bustling with activity. The women chat with each other, and then, the wind picks up. The trees rustle. And somewhere off camera, a scream is heard. One of the women looks up, alarmed, while her bench companion sees oblivious. The woman who noticed the scream looks off into the distance, and mutters, “Are those people clawing at themselves?” We don’t actually see this, and that somehow makes it all the more unsettling.
A cut reveals that everyone in the park has mysteriously frozen in place, as if they’re playing the most elaborate game of Red Light, Green Light, 123 in history. And then things start going to hell. People begin killing themselves. We cut from Central Park to a construction site, where workers begin hurling themselves from a rooftop, only to splatter below. Shyamalan inserts a haunting shot pointed up at the sky, showing multiple people plummeting to their deaths one after another. It’s creepy! And then, the filmmaker reveals what this movie is really going to be about by smash-cutting to Mark Wahlberg talking about bees.
Mark Wahlberg Plays a Stupid Science Teacher
Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot Moore, a high school science teacher who also happens to be an idiot. Wahlberg spends the entire movie seeming utterly baffled. Sure, you can give him the benefit of the doubt and say that if a mysterious happening was going on, you, too, would look confused. But Wahlberg looks confused about everything. Even before the shit hits the fan, he’s puzzled. Almost every line he delivers sounds as if it’s a question, with the last word in any sentence he says going up an octave. See this face?
That’s the face Mark Wahlberg makes through the entire runtime of The Happening. Wahlberg’s confused, anxious performance is amazing to watch, and results in some hysterical moments. Particularly a scene where he yells “Be scientific, douchebag!” at himself.
Zooey Deschanel is Some Sort of Alien Disguised as a Human
As strange and amusing as Mark Wahlberg’s performance is in The Happening, it’s nothing compared to the work Zooey Deschanel does. I’ve seen Deschanel in other things, so I know she is, in fact, a good actress. Which can only mean at some point during the making of The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan took her aside and told her to play her character like an alien in human disguise.
Remember Vincent D’Onofrio in Men In Black? His character in that film was a big alien wearing a human man’s skin as a disguise. That’s kind of what Deschanel is doing here. Nothing she says or does seems grounded in any sort of reality. When she addresses other characters, she sounds like she’s just talking to herself. I dare you to watch Deschanel here and figure out just what the hell she’s doing. It’s a mystery!
The Movie is About Killer Plants and Trees (and Wind!)
The dead-giveaway that The Happening is supposed to be a silly B-movie is right there in the premise: this is a movie about killer plants and trees (and also wind). And when I say killer plants, I don’t mean scary vines that wrap themselves around people, or the talking, singing plant from Little Shop of Horrors. No, these are just normal, every-day plants. And they emit a toxin – a toxin that rides on the wind and infects people. Once infected by this toxin, people suddenly decide to kill themselves in various gruesome ways. You can tell when a plant attack is coming because Shyamalan will cut to a field of uncut grass billowing in the breeze. When that happens, all bets are off, folks. It’s killer plant time. Trees are in on it as well, and Shyamalan adds a scene late in the movie where a child is swinging on a tree swing, and Zooey Deschanel looks terrified, because she thinks the tree will retaliate any second (it does).
A Man Casually Lets Lions Rip His Arms Off
The death scenes in The Happening are a real treat. This was Shyamalan’s first R-rated movie, and he decided to go all-out and add gore galore. That means we’re treated to several gruesome-yet-comical moments in which people off themselves in semi-creative ways. It’s almost like a Final Destination movie, without all the set-up. In one scene, a man at the Philadelphia Zoo decides to casually feed himself to lions. He calmly strolls back and forth, letting the lions rip his damn arms off his body. It’s the casualness that really makes the scene so incredible. This dying man has no concern whatsoever that lions are dismembering him. He’s totally cool with it.
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