THE HAPPENING (M. Night Shyamalan). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (June 13). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
SPOILER ALERT: No matter how little is revealed about this relatively twist-free M. Night Shyamalan movie, some of you still won’t be happy with this review. Consider yourself warned. Intentionally dull and ridiculously unrevealing title aside, The Happening is an unnerving, anxiety-provoking experiment in eco horror that’s sure to be Al Gore’s favourite film of the year.
After long worshipping at Spielberg’s feet, Shyamalan is practically peerless at crafting scenes that will have you clinging to your armrests – a child’s confession that he sees dead people, for example, or a glimpse of an alien in a birthday party video.
Here, he takes a page from another master, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Birds specifically. A stiff breeze proves as unsettling as the stuffed seagull on the end of a length of fishing line that’s swung at Tippi Hedren’s head.
Shyamalan wastes no time setting things up. The credits have only just ended when people in Central Park stop dead in their tracks, plunge hair pins into their own throats, climb into lion cages at the zoo. The rain of construction workers plummeting off a roof like rag dolls, only glimpsed in the film’s trailer, becomes more prolonged and more horrifying with every impact.
The scenes are played for maximum shock, and it’s several minutes before you realize Shyamalan is working with the thinnest of storylines.
At first the mass suicides are believed to be caused by a terrorist attack, an explanation that feels unconvincing some seven years after 9/11. While cities along the East Coast start evacuating, sending people scurrying across the countryside as though chased by a zombie plague, another possibility begins to emerge. After centuries of indiscriminate abuse, Mother Nature is fighting back with a hay fever allergy all the Claritin on the planet won’t cure.
But here’s the inconvenient truth about The Happening: while the plot hits a couple of incredibly laughable speed bumps, a stronger cast could have smoothed things over, kept the story driving forward and made us forget that the film’s boogie man is literally a bunch of hot air.
Mark Walhberg, as a high school science teacher and de facto leader, comes across as anxious and scared from his first scene, as if he’s just been asked by his brother to open for the New Kids on the Block reunion tour.