Written by El Puerquito Magnifico
In the summer of 2008, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan unleashed his first ever R-rated feature film, The Happening. The film was pretty much universally panned by critics and filmgoers alike, myself included. There’s certainly no mistaking The Happening for something that the average person would refer to as a “good movie,” but upon further contemplation, I do feel that this movie has something to offer to a certain selection of film buffs.
The basic plot of the film deals with a strange plague that causes people to off themselves in particularly gruesome ways. There’s a husband and wife who run around trying to get to the bottom of the whole thing while simultaneously dealing with the effects of the plague. Namely, everybody starts panicking and acting all crazy. The main point of the film, without spoiling anything, is that ultimately it is people who are the real terror.
This movie features, without a doubt, the worst acting I have ever seen captured on film. I’m not just referring to one or two of the actors; I’m talking across the board. It’s true that no one has ever mistaken Mark Walberg or Zooey Deschanel for Academy Award winners, but to call their performances in this film wooden would be an insult to the lumber industry. They’re just plain bad.
The movie was marketed as something of a horror film, or maybe a suspense thriller or something of that nature. The truth of the matter is that it’s not even remotely scary. I can’t recall sitting through a less suspenseful movie in my lifetime. This film fails to hit the mark on nearly every attempt: it’s funny when it’s supposed to be serious and during the (allegedly) humorous scenes, there was nary a smile in the theater.
Now, I saw The Happening in the theater, and I’ll be totally honest with you: I almost walked out about 30 minutes into it. But at some point, I’m not exactly sure where, a light bulb appeared over my head and the truth of this film was illuminated. “Oh!” I thought to myself while sitting in the theater contemplating other things I could’ve spent my $10 on, “This isn’t a good movie… it’s a bad movie!” And from that point on, I actually kind of liked it.
Here’s the deal: if The Happening had been released some time in the 1970s, I’m convinced that it would be revered today as a lost gem of the drive-in era. Its poor acting, slow pacing, and heavy-handed social and ecological messages would have meshed quite well with similar films of the era such as Billy Jack, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Soylent Green or Silent Running. If it had been released as the third movie on the Grindhouse bill along with Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, fans of exploitation films would have absolutely swooned over it. It fits in perfectly with these films, and a part of me has to believe that it was M. Night Shyamalan’s intention to craft an homage to this bygone era of filmmaking. I have to believe it because it’s the only way I can make any sense of this travesty of modern cinema.
There is no possible way Shyamalan wrote this dialogue and handed it over to the actors thinking it was going to be the next Sixth Sense. I cannot possibly believe that he directed these actors and at the end of a long shoot looked back over the finished product and thought, “Yes, this is exactly what I was going for!” unless what he was going for was an intentionally bad movie. And if that was indeed his goal, then he succeeded with flying colors and I applaud him for his efforts.
I myself am a fan of exploitation films and B-movies. I am among the seven people in the world who actually owns the remastered five-disc Billy Jack 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collection. Nothing moves me to recycle or make a difference in my community like a good (or from most perspectives, bad) mid-to-late ‘70s ecological disaster movie. So when I look at The Happening through that perspective, there is a big part of me that really does enjoy it. That strange and indefinable part of my brain that absolutely thrills to bad cinema. If you feel the same way, you just might find something to enjoy in The Happening. However, if you are filmgoer with any sense of taste, you’ll stay as far away from this movie as you can possibly get.
The DVD features all sorts of deleted scenes with introductions from Shyamalan, as well as behind-the-scenes featurettes and a gag reel.