Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is known for creating twist endings. What he should be known for is twisting conventional genres. Sometimes it works, as it did in The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable. And sometimes it just falls flat.
In The Happening, Shyamalan plays off a couple of different genres, but most obviously he works with “nature gone wild” — a subgenre of science fiction and horror with a resumé dating back at least to 1954’s Them! In its science fiction manifestation, “nature gone wild” usually involves genetically altered species of animals or insects: giant irradiated ants (Them!), giant chemically mutated bunnies (Night of the Lepus), giant irradiated brain-eating talking crabs (Attack of the Crab Monsters). You get the picture.
In its horror manifestation, “nature gone wild” sometimes involves natural breeding gone dangerously out of control (The Swarm), but most often it involves some kind of malign natural sentience. That is, some element of nature, without any mad science assistance, has developed an apparently conscious will to kill humans. The two most famous examples involve: 1) a lone shark preying in shallow waters, and 2) the interspecies flocking of homicidal birds (c’mon, you know the titles!).
In The Happening, Shyamalan blends “nature gone wild” with what I jokingly refer to as the “siege on a farmhouse in Western Pennsylvania” subgenre of horror — i.e. the George Romero Dead movies and their descendants, including the British Dog Soldiers and Shyamalan’s own Signs. (Curiously, the original “siege on a farmhouse” movie took place in Bodega Bay, California and involved the interspecies flocking of homicidal birds).
In addition to alien invasion movies and Swedish existential ones, Shyamalan's Signs took on Night of the Living Dead (arguably the most famous film by a Pennsylvania filmmaker) and did a credible job of it, turning flesh-eating zombies into aliens cultivating humans as food and directly assaulting the protagonists’ farmhouse overnight. The Happening pays homage more to Dawn of the Dead, as the protagonists flee the city into rural Pennsylvania, hoping to find a safe haven from the assault, only to find a string of abandoned, hostile or semi-abandoned farmhouses… and no abandoned shopping mall!
The most obvious similarity between The Happening and Romero's zombie movies lies in what happens to the infected. They don’t become flesh-eating zombies, of course, but they do become something equally alien and horrifying to the non-infected: suicidal automatons, often wreaking (or seeking) havoc on their own bodies. The Dead films are not just about zombie noshing. They’re also about loss of will and becoming one’s own worst nightmare.
Shyamalan intentionally, even strategically, inserts The Happening into the lineage of some of Alfred Hitchcock's and George Romero's greatest work. So how does it match up?
In The Birds (Hitchcock's first motion picture after Psycho), the master is at the top of his form. The Birds is sort of an apotheosis of the “nature gone wild” film. In it, birds mass and mount inexplicable (and unexplained) assaults on humans, attacking children as well as adults.
The Birds takes its time in revealing the threat. Starting out as a sort of screwball comedy about the wacky interactions between a wealthy socialite and a young lawyer, the first bird attack – a single swoop down on the socialite – comes at least 20 minutes into the film. The attacks build and build, though, until swarms of birds are racing down the farmhouse chimney, pecking their way through ceilings and doors, and massing for what seems like miles around the farmhouse. In the end, we don’t know the cause of the event. We don’t even know if it’s isolated to Bodega Bay and environs or if it’s the first wave of a worldwide apocalypse.
Night of the Living Dead similarly paces itself. An isolated attack in a graveyard leads to the discovery of an abandoned farmhouse, which leads to the grisly discovery of a mutilated corpse, which escalates towards a full-scale assault. We get the news in waves. The living, first in ones and then groups, descend on the farmhouse. Then come the dead. The film is well underway before we hear the first newscast explanations for this epidemic of homicide.
But the slow, deliberate tease is not necessarily crucial to the genre. Drawing on the mythology of its antecedent, Dawn of the Dead places us already in the middle of the crisis, opening with a SWAT team trying to take down zombies while talking heads try to explain the phenomenon.
The Happening tries it both ways — starting off fast, but teasing it out slow. Like Dawn of the Dead, The Happening opens with a large-scale crisis. Mass suicides occur in Central Park and nearby. But by the time Philadelphia hears, the only questions are how large the crisis is and what's causing it. Our awareness of the size of the catastrophe, like the characters', develops slowly, while our sense of the cause evolves over the course of the film.
Regardless of characters' theories, the film never unequivocally adopts a single explanation. In fact, the "wrap up" at the end is actually The Happening’s most direct tribute to Dawn of the Dead. This is not a categorical summation or pronouncement but an intentionally comic explication of the event by an “expert”… and the exasperated reaction by the show’s host. If you want to get the joke, watch Dawn of the Dead and pay close attention to the talking heads. But herein lies a problem. Should we really need to familiarize ourselves with a secondary film in order to "get" the equivocal nature of Shyamalan's ending? Not in a mass market movie! But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's back up a bit.
Like Romero in Night of the Living Dead, Shyamalan does do a reasonably good job with building up the sense of danger, from rumor to reality to panic to mass death and the potential for apocalypse. But he gets his film too tangled up in secondary mechanisms (not to mention other people's movies) to give his threat the immediacy it deserves.
In The Birds and the Dead movies, the threat is immediate and visceral. Birds or zombies attack. The characters defend themselves or die. In The Happening, the threat is more conceptual. Neurotoxins are released into the air by an unknown agency (the trees? the government?), and those infected kill themselves. (Technically, they lose their self-preservation instinct, and for some reason, this translates into an immediate and fatal burst of self-destruction).
Shyamalan did a nice job with the unseen threat in Signs. But there was always a physical bulk behind the invisibility, and that physical bulk could be fought. Here, the struggle is against something insubstantial (the wind) and microscopic (the neurotoxins it carries) and the destruction is ultimately carried out by a secondary agency (the infected individual against him or herself). This pestilence cannot be fought. All anyone can do is try to outrun it (or find an antidote!). And this makes the struggle seem less immediate, even passive.
By riffing off Hitchcock and Romero, Shyamalan creates certain expectations about the kind of threat his protagonists face and how they will fight it. Of course, Shyamalan lives to subvert expectations, but in order to do so successfully, he needs to create a work that at least nearly equals the ones he’s challenging. The expectations established by these films have, after all, seeped into our collective cinematic unconscious.
So does Shyamalan pull it off? The concept he’s dealing with has potential. In “nature gone wild,” the things we take most for granted are typically the things that turn against us. And what do we take more for granted than the air we breathe? (No matter the cause of the crisis, air is the common denominator here). The concept can work, but it will need strong characters to drive it and actors who will sell it.
Characters do drive The Birds and the Dead movies. The Birds starts with strong characters and develops them more fully through the crucible of an apocalyptic nightmare. In the Dead films, Romero cuts straight to character development through crisis. Unlike Hitchcock, he can’t pay for for A-list actors or a lengthy prelude, but he makes up for these deficiencies in the raw urgency and passion he gets from his cast. Audiences care when major characters go down in Romero films. Romero's actors, regardless of acting skill, always sell their situation.
In The Happening, though, Shyamalan sacrifices character to situation. Mark Wahlberg's is the only well-realized character among the major cast. A few small players – the soldier and horticulturist in particular – manage to make their characters resonate. But most of the cast has trouble getting the audience to care deeply about their characters' plight or even their deaths. Whether this is a function of the writing or the acting, it is ultimately the responsibility of the director.
Shyamalan loves to present himself with tricky problems that he tries to solve in unique ways. But instead of high concept that can be distilled into a single sentence (eg. “tell a ghost story from the perspective of a ghost who does not come across as a ghost”), The Happening gives us multiple concepts that get tangled up in each other: 1) “transform the 'nature gone wild' subgenre from animal/insect threats into vegetation/environmental threats while remaining equivocal that the threat even has its origin in nature,” 2) “transform the end result of the toxin so that the infected do not attack the uninfected but the infected attack themselves,” 3) “transform pestilence movies from scientists racing to find a cure to characters racing against the wind,” and so forth.
The Happening ambitiously attempts to refresh old subgenres. It would like to be The Birds. It would like to be Night of the Living/Dawn of the Dead. But without the boldness of high concept, and without actors who can really sell its overly tangled and abstract threat, The Happening doesn’t ever quite happen.