When The Sixth Sense was first released, M. Night Shyamalan was widely praised as the next coming of Hitchcock. He’s faltered in some ways since then, but with The Happening he shows that he is still ready, willing, and–most importantly–able to live up to some of that billing. Here he delivers a very unique film, not only in terms of its premise but in its presentation.
One day in Manhattan people suddenly start becoming disoriented and proceed to kill themselves in various horrific ways. Nobody knows what is causing this to happen, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is spreading. In nearby Philadelphia, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife (Zooey Deschanel), along with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez, a very capable child actress) decide to flee. The movie is essentially the story of their escape, while Elliot the science teacher attempts to reason out an explanation for what is happening. Along the way his theories appear to be proven true, although we never learn for sure exactly what the cause is, which proves to be a very effective way of keeping things suspenseful even when the enemy is not thoroughly understood. Said enemy is, ostensibly, the plant life that we as humans have not been doing a very good job of sharing the planet with as of late; they’ve finally evolved a way to fight back, it seems.
If plants sound like a boring threat to you, you haven’t experienced the way Shyamalan crafts a thriller. The fact that the events occurring are never completely understood (even the recap given by a TV news reporter after the “happening” appears to have subsided still rings mostly as speculation) gives the whole movie a chilly air of suspense stemming from a fear of the unknown. The frequent cuts to shots of leaves blowing in the wind are eerily quiet and disturbing in a very Hitchcockian manner (not unlike, say, a shot of a seemingly innocuous bird settling onto a jungle gym). Shyamalan takes several opportunities to show just how adept he is at crafting situations that repeatedly serve to bring his audience to the edge of their seats and then immediately cause them to leap out of them. The Happening strikes a masterful balance between disturbing, slowly-developing imagery (there’s a scene involving a lawnmower that particularly sticks in the viewer’s mind) and tightly-crafted cringe- and jump-inducing surprise (such as a scene involving Elliot in the house of an old reclusive woman they encounter).
One area in which the film really stands out as unique is in the sheer awkwardness of how the events are depicted by the filmmakers and how they are responded to by the characters. Although many have panned it for this very reason (Jim Emerson, for instance), I really feel that they are missing the point. It’s much more interesting to see a school evacuation where everybody seems more confused and unsure than panicked, for example, than it is to show yet another high shot of the school’s entrance as children flood out, as we’ve seen seemingly hundreds of times before. The uniqueness of the way Shyamalan chooses to handle scenes such as this not only keeps the viewer interested, as it reinforces the keeping-you-guessing aspect of the film, but it also adds to the chilly ambiance of the situations the characters find themselves in. To me inquisitive, uncertain characters are much more interesting than your standard horror movie screamers. The whole style of the movie seems to flow from this basis: a lot of the photography is closer and softer than might normally be expected, the majority of the settings are open and serene rather than dark and claustrophobic, and the events themselves are more chillingly quiet and disturbing than they are shocking and outright scary.
Wahlberg’s and Deschanel’s performances are on the surface quite flat, but again they seem more to be reflective of characters who don’t quite know how to react, and would prefer to witness what’s going on rather than scream about it and run away. It’s another awkward aspect of the film that might put off some viewers, but looked at with an open mind it’s refreshingly different from the by-the-book performances a less creative director might have elicited. Shyamalan certainly has a long ways to go before we can really consider him to be in the same realm as Hitchcock, but The Happening is a step in the right direction.