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The Happening (2008)

The Happening (2008)

Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Tagline: We've Sensed It. We've Seen The Signs. Now... It's Happening

Full Review


The Happening is an unusual horror movie: no monsters, no serial killers, no ghosts or demons. It's all about atmosphere, which is the sort of film I enjoy. Maybe that's why I'm one of the few people who likes this film.

The story is set across one day of time, starting in the morning in New York. For no obvious reason most of the people in Central Park suddenly just... stop. Then, slowly and carefully, they proceed to kill themselves using the most direct method available. This is The Happening - unpredicted and unexplained. And it doesn't Happen there but spreads out across first New York then most of the North East of the USA.

What's causing this? Nobody knows. First assumption is a terrorist attack, then there are rumours about a secret government research facility. Majority opinion finally settles on the theory that plants are releasing some form of toxin in response to a perceived threat from mankind.

Our protagonist is Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a small town science teacher who along with others leaves the major population areas which seem to be most at risk. However the suicide sickness appears to be spreading, affecting gradually less and less populated regions and, eventually, even groups of people.

The result is a very creepy piece of cinema. The threat is invisible and unknown whilst the ultimate danger comes from yourself. Somehow the thought of involuntarily suicide is more scary than the idea of being torn to shreds by a monster. There's never any visible threat, just the rustle of grass and trees with streets filled with dead bodies. There's no gore in this film - lots of people kill themselves but we rarely see much blood. The idea that increasingly small groups of people become affected gives a great plot device for whittling down the number of characters by forcing them to split up.

From a scientific point of view it's all a load of bollocks. The "revenge of the plants" idea makes no sense, but then nor does any other. At the end of the day there is no simple explanation, just one hypothesis that's slightly less implausible than the rest. If you're looking for neatly tied up plots you won't find one in The Happening. It's just "An act of nature and we'll never understand it".

Of course at one level it can all be explained as a clumsy metaphor: humanity is damaging the planet and one day the planet might fight back. As such it's a sledgehammer subtle piece of environmentalism. I prefer not to dwell on that interpretation but just to think of it as a strange Fortean occurrence. The Happening is definitely a better title than The Green Effect.

For me the lack of any explanation is one of the appeals of The Happening. I found it highly atmospheric and disturbing. A neatly tied knot at the end would have undermined all that.

Acting is competent enough although the support cast are more impressive than the leads, for example Jeremy Strong as Private Auster, a young man out of his depth and trying to do his best as the face of authority. The music is wrong, too intrusive - it's decent music, just too much for a film of this nature.

It's a five star movie - until the last five or ten minutes. Then it goes horribly, horribly wrong. There's a natural dramatic end point in the script but at the last second Shyamalan seems to lose his nerve. Maybe the studios leant on him to change the ending, maybe preview audience didn't like it. Whatever the reason the film ends with some of the worst cliches of horror movies. In fact the ending is basically that which Bruce Campbell satirises in My Name is Bruce (2007). Painful.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Happening - until those awful last few minutes.

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