Films that intend to destroy the world are so common that those few psychotic enough to follow through have a kind of perversely delightful payoff. M. Night Shyamalan has a gift for reverse scope, for framing tiny things like they represent something tragically universal (and this is what I believe he calls horror). The Happening is the first film I’ve seen from him that portrays a disaster that is actually global, as though the entire world were built on one big Indian graveyard. This is the Superman V: The Quest for Peace to his Unbreakable.
I’ve seen great filmmakers make bad movies. But I’ve never seen them willingly create the antimatter to their own style. With only the earnest request of his audience to question and unravel everything they believe about their brittle capitalistic existence, Shyamalan instead has made a film that makes me question and unravel everything I believe about Shyamalan. I would call it the greatest parody of a style in movie history, if it had been made by anyone else. His suicide as a filmmaker is so diabolically self-initiated that I wish it was intentional. But even if Superman wanted to die enough to make Kryptonite himself, he would never kill Lois Lane. The brilliant badness of The Happening cannot be intentional (as Shyamalan weakly insisted after its release) because it doesn’t just terminate Shyamalan the director – it whites out his genius from the movies he has already made and which, I assume, he loves as a hero loves the women he saves.
I’ve seen M. Night in interviews (before the release of The Happening) mulling over his directorial voice and suspense tactics in his “first rated-R movie.” I know that when his protagonist talks about “respectful awe for the laws of nature,” he is speaking for Shyamalan, to whom it is no laughing matter. When purposeful, these kinds of movies are never funny – a bong and an IQ of no more than 70 should be required for entry into Sharknado, a film that is so conspicuously putrid that it fails in the magic of misguided grandeur that belongs particularly to the realm of well-meaning accidents.
My point couldn’t be made clearer than by the truly horrifying tagline for this film, as though we’re watching a career unfold and movies are just incidental. It reads, “You have Sensed it. You have seen the Signs. Now … it’s Happening.” This was supposed to be Shyamalan’s career apex, not a B-movie throwback.
And what a euphoric splat is this apex! What entropic beauty, like a dissection of all that makes Shyamalan who he believes himself to be, a Rorschach blot of a filmmaker’s idea of himself that no one else can see for the shapes he thinks are there.
Tak Fujimoto, the director of photography that Shyamalan uses for his particular aesthetic (the fragile horror of the mundane), is not remiss in his duties in The Happening. But if in The Sixth Sense he churns drama over frames of such insignificance that they become eerie, in The Happening the effect is unmistakably comedic. Even gruesome scenes (such as a group of people jumping off the roof of their apartment) is so overreacted and abrupt that it’s funny.
The problem is Shyamalan’s style. Consider the framing in Unbreakable. Long, hard stares at ordinary things make you imagine the minutiae of the character’s history, and the surreality of unveiling daily middle class life for all its banal drama and micro-horror. Fujimoto treats a normal closet like a trove of secrets – Willis sifting through a box of photos gives the impression of the dark, unknowable mundane. The ghosts we carry inside us.
This does not work in The Happening because the horror is literal and external – actual horrifying, insane things are happening so underplaying them seems more insincere than scary. They deserve significance in the frame that Shyamalan cannot give them. His style of barely touching on a scary thing, letting it hit the frame abruptly but not linger, here turns body horror into slapstick. People shooting themselves in the head become clowns because the frame doesn’t place significance on the right thing. We are focused on things happening (this is all we have time for) and not on the people to whom they happen. Observe an early scene: a construction worker horrified that his co-workers are dropping to their deaths off a scaffold. We hear a thud, and see his breathless face. He says their name, “David?” and inches towards the body. In the background, another body drops on the edge of the frame and he turns and says, “Carl?” with the same open mouth and buggy eyes.
The reaction of myself and my best friend (sitting beside me) was immediate and coordinated. He turned to me before the scene was even over and said with a smile, “Jasper?” I said, “Billy?” We alternated, “Milton?” “Kermit?” “Simon?” “Gandalf?” We were in that state of pre-laughter such that the cut to the man’s view of the bodies limply dropping from the sky like Gerry Anderson marionettes tipped us over into boffo. No one told us to be quiet because they weren’t scared either. But no one else laughed, and I imagine they wished they could know it as we knew it. Every second of The Happening is a joke that you either get or don’t.
Shyamalan himself nudges the comedic inertia by presuming that everything that happens in The Happening is so dramatic that it requires relief. A man will say in a dire time, “Y’know, hotdogs get a really bad rap.” These moments are never comedic but always funny – they stoke the unmistakable feeling that you and M. Night are of different species, and that his parody of people is a joyous floorshow put on by aliens who read one issue of Better Homes & Gardens and one of Fangoria and extrapolated the human race in reverse. Shyamalan always had a uniquely foreign touch, but one made relatable by the dark intimacy we sometimes imagine we have within ourselves. I never knew how close he was to making Bollywood movies.
It’s cute that Mark Wahlberg has denounced The Happening, implying that he was better than the film. No one could have made its imperfections as flawless as Marky Mark does, playing a high school science teacher [sic] and looking for the whole film like he has no idea where he is. The camera gets so close in moments of tension that every frame is worth a thousand memes. He spends the movie acting like if everyone would just give him a goddamn second he could get his bearings straight and start acting better. But he’s always lagging behind, and stepping in the potholes dug by the editor (Conrad Buff). It’s not enough that we close in on his boyish face, sincerely straining to be dramatic (nothing is funnier than sincerity). But they’ve also written him this terminal dialogue, like every scene ends on a punchline, followed immediately by a hard scene change. About a dozen of these cuts involve a line that has the word “happening” sewn to the end (though the best is one where he looks to the camera, disillusioned as a bunny rabbit that bit into a plastic carrot, and says, “You lied to me?”).
What about the rest of the cast? Zooey Deschanel’s performance could not be a more beautiful disaster – I forget that she’s ever acted any better. John Leguizamo does the best job by having the lesser part. Shyamalan is like his own language: everyone in The Happening reads him like a foreign one.
There’s an unspoken rule that you should never say the title of the movie in the movie. That it happens no fewer than ten times is a simple error of The Happening, but it also exemplifies its real and enduring badness. It’s a feature-length version of saying the title in the film, a film that so methodically tries to be meaningful that nothing is suspenseful even though everything is dramatic. I imagine a whole group of screenwriters pouring over paper with their tongues out, fisting huge crayons and bragging to each other about their allegories. I imagine Shyamalan struggling to balance all their ideas into one movie.
And then I remember that Shyamalan is the film’s sole screenwriter, that the different people in himself are the irreconcilable intellects that convert every emotion in The Happening into its opposite. But like those beautiful crayon drawings made with blithe honesty in a preschool classroom, self-awareness probably would have ruined it.
I watch it like a monster film, like Hitchcock’s The Birds, but as though the post-editors and special effects department went on strike before putting in the monsters. Everyone is running from nothing and swatting at nothing and their wide-eyed fear at an unknowable natural world is the perfect parody of a genre of bad movies because it refuses to know itself. Laughing at someone is always better than laughing with them. And as the credits roll I have one more chuckle at the expense of Shyamalan’s adorable neo-liberalism – this could have all been avoided if deforesters hadn’t been such underachievers.
Since his promising emergence, Shyamalan has ached to prove himself the next Hitchcock. But I have sensed it. I have seen the signs. Now … he has become Ed Wood.